Friday, August 31, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild


I don't have time to write a full review, but I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't commend Beasts of the Southern Wild to your attention. 

Despite some very tasty images, such as the above, this is not really a fantasy -- or if it is, it's only a fantasy in the sense that any movie in which life proves to be impossibly hospitable is a fantasy.  And there's no getting around the fact that the plot is almost as shambolic as the charmingly hammered together sets.  But it has a stunning performance by then-six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis and tons and tons of heart.

So what happens?  The marsh Eden called Bathtub is a refuge for what Rebecca Ore calls "wild humans" -- people who live in extreme poverty but in recompense get to live exactly as and how they wish, with not a second thought for authority of any kind.  But a hurricane, an ill-advised attempt to save their community by blowing up a levee, and meddling government do-gooders threaten to to separate young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane) and several other girls from their homes and families.  Bad things happen.  Good things happen.  There's a happy ending. 

The ending is kind of beside the point, though.  The charm of this movie is in its moment-by-moment depiction of lives spent in the kind of freedom that most of us can only fantasize about.  Also in its visual beauty.  Squalor has never looked more attractive than this.

I have to wonder, though.  According the credits, the movie was based (surely loosely) on the play Juicy and Delicious Lucy Alibar.  What on earth can that play be like?


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Remembering Josepha Sherman


I went to New York City yesterday for a memorial service for Josepha Sherman, who died recently after a long illness.  Josepha was a prolific writer, an editor, a folklorist, and the co-author of (among many other books, mostly written solo) Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood.  I've got a copy here on my desk and, unlike most such books, it really is genuinely, cheerfully subversive.

As was Josepha.  I wasn't a close friend -- not like most of the people who showed up last night.  But I enjoyed her company and she clearly enjoyed her life.  Every time I saw her, she was just enjoying the heck out of the situation, whatever it might be.

Listening to her friends relate fond memories, I couldn't help thinking of how in some ways she and I were opposites.  I never know how to respond to gifts, for one thing.  When somebody gives me something, I stand tongue-tied until Marianne nudges me and says, "Say thank-you, Michael."

I suspect that Josepha never had to be told to say thank-you.  She knew that life is a gift and she was continuously grateful for it.

Now that gift has come to an end.  But the memories remain, the friends remain, the community she was a part of remains.  Rest in peace, Joespha.  You left some good things behind.

Including at least one book so subversive I can't quite find the guts to quote it here.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Slow Life" at Lightspeed


As always, I'm on the road again.  But I have a story reprint online, courtesy of the good folks at Lightspeed.

The story is "Slow Life," which was originally published in Analog.  Here's how it begins:

The raindrop began forming ninety kilometers above the surface of Titan. It started with an infinitesimal speck of tholin, adrift in the cold nitrogen atmosphere. Dianoacetylene condensed on the seed nucleus, molecule by molecule, until it was one shard of ice in a cloud of billions.
When I first decided to write "Slow Life," I wanted to make it as hard-science -fiction-feeling as possible.  So I went back to the early Larry Niven collectiions to see how he'd done it . . . and discovered that a lot of his early stories began with a brief lecture on physics.  Not what they teach you at Clarion -- and yet it worked.

Which is why I determined to start by tracing the fall of a raindrop from the upper atmosphere to the surface of Titan.  It was a lot of work.  It was a lot of fun.  And when Stan Schmidt bought it, his acceptance letter noted that normally Analog didn't accept stories with that much technical detail in them.

I may well have that letter engraved on my tombstone.

You'll find the interview here.  And the story here.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Chicago's Italo Balbo Monument


I won't be attending the Worldcon this weekend.  But for those who are, here's a neglected corner of history you might be interested in looking up while you're in Chicago:  The Italo Balbo monument.  This is a memento, and perhaps the only enduring one, of the 1933-1934 Century of Progress World's Fair, hosted by Chicago.

 "One of the highlights of the fair," my source writes, "occurred when Italian aviator Italo Balbo led a squadron of 24 Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boats in a historic transatlantic flight from Rome to Chicago, landing on Lake Michigan near the fairgrounds."  To mark the occasion, Mussolini contributed a Roman column.  On the monument, in Italian and English, is the inscription:

This column, twenty centuries old, was erected on the beach of Ostia, the port of Imperial Rome, to watch over the fortunes and victories of the Roman triremes. Fascist Italy, with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini, presents to Chicago a symbol and memorial in honor of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo, which with Roman daring, flew across the ocean in the 11th year of the Fascist era.

Italo Balbo was an interesting, if not very admirable man.  He was part of the quadrumvirate that brought Mussolini to power, in recognition of which he was made the minister of Italy's air force.  At the time he didn't know how to fly, but apparently he was a quick learner.  He died in 1940, in an air accident, the victim of friendly fire in Libya.  Despite the occasional call for its removal, his monument remains, neflected, in Burnham Park, east of Soldier Field.

You can read about it here.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Now That Neil Armstrong is Gone . . .


Now that Neil Armstrong is no longer with us, one third of all the human beings who ever walked on the Moon are dead.

Nobody, not even J. G. Ballard called this one -- that after our biggest success in what was then called the Space Race, with a world that has since grown continually more wealthy and technologically advanced, we would simply stop sending human beings to other worlds.

This is the point at which, as a science fiction writer, I'm supposed to launch into a jeremiad about the failure of nerve of our culture and science fiction's enabling role in not providing sufficiently moving myths to overcome that failure of nerve.

But it is always better to understand than to complain.  So let's consider why we haven't sent another man (or the first woman) beyond low Earth orbit in the last forty years.

The big culprit here is Earth's gravity well.  It takes an enormous amount of energy to break free of it and that energy is tremendously expensive.  The first modern science fiction writers imagined that space travel, once achieved, would become progressively more efficient and less expensive, the same way that land travel, sea travel, and air travel had.  It was a good model and up through Apollo 17, everything looked to be right on track.

But (damn physics!) manned space exploration remains extraordinarily expensive and looks like it will be so for the foreseeable future.  

The lesser culprit is the lack of a goal compelling enough to make a nation sink that kind of money into manned space exploration.  China has plans for a manned Moon landing . . . but they're doing it for the same reasons the United States did in the late Sixties and early Seventies.  To prove that they're a major world power capable of extraordinarily difficult and expensive feats.

The U.S. has already proved that with Apollo 11.  That's an accomplishment which, like Yuri Gagarin's first flight into space, cannot be taken away from a nation.  In order to keep going, after the prestige has been gained, there must be other reasons.

In the old science fiction model, space flight would become increasingly cheap, more and more people would be able to afford it, and they'd take off for parts unknown for a variety of reasons, both self-serving and idealistic.  To mine the asteroids, the build Lunar colonies, the terraform Mars, to escape an overcrowded Earth.  None of which looks likely to happen anytime soon.

So at the present time the arguments for manned space exploration are:

1.  Scientific curiosity.
2.  The prestige of doing so.
3.  "Because it's there."

Which apparently aren't enough.

Manned orbital missions, you'll note, are doing just fine.  That's because there are a lot of military and economic reasons for having an orbital presence.  We'll have manned missions to other planets as soon as we can come up with a strong reason for them.  One that's strong enough to convince, let's say, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama that serious money should be committed to it.

I don't have that reason.  But some years ago John Barnes explained how we could find one.  Send out thousands of small, cheap probes, he said, to every part of the Solar System.  Let them gather information.  Build a data base of that information.  And when that data base is large enough, it will tell us why we should send human beings out into space.

To which I can only say, Amen.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jason deCaires Taylor in Collaboration with God


Robert Lewis Stevenson put it best:

The world is so full of a number of things,
I am certain we all should be happy as kings.

Our times are so rich with creative energy that wonderful things can be known to all the world and yet not impinge themselves on our awareness.  It was only last night, trolling the Web for art profound enough to influence my next fantasy novel, that I discovered Jason deCaires Taylor and his astonishing undersea sculpture garden.

I'd have to see it in person to be able to judge the sculptures.  But viewed second-hand, they remind me of Kyle Cassidy's photos.  Rather than using artifice to create an artificial standard of beauty, he photographs people as they really are . . . and reveals the beauty inherent therein.

So too, here.  But then the artist hands his work over to God and says, "Do what thou wilt."  Or as Shaxper put it:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

You can best appreciate the work here.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Kids! Don't Try This At Home


Some writing advice is stranger than others.  The oddest useful advice I can think of is this:  Don't listen to the Guyoto Monks while writing.

The Gyoto Monks are the Dalai Lama's crack spiritual troops, best known for the fact that they can chant in chords.  Individually, I mean.  Scientists who have looked into this say that clearly what is going on is that they hold the larynx motionless at the first and second resonance points.  Then, like a plucked guitar string held motionless at those same points, the result is a chord.  Exactly how they learn to do this is a mystery because scientists and Buddhist monks simply do not speak the same language.

It is claimed -- and I believe it -- that listening to the Gyoto Monks chant raises your mind to a higher spiritual level.  Again, there's some speculation about alpha, beta, and gamma brain waves, but the explanation still eludes modern science.

The reason I believe the claim is that I used to listen to music on headphones while I wrote.  One day I put on a tape I'd just bought of the Gyoto Monks chanting and began to write.  As they chanted, I grew increasingly calm and peaceful.  And I stopped writing.

I got up and got a cup of coffee, did a couple of minor chores around the house, went back and started writing again, still listening to the monks.  I started out with a clatter of keys, slowed, stilled . . . stopped.

This happened several times.  The chanting would raise me to a higher level of consciousness in which I no longer desired to write.  Writing, it appears, is an inherently low form of consciousness.  Possibly, it may even be sinful.

I mentioned this to a writer friend and he said, "Yeah, the same thing happened to me.  Eventually, I had to throw the tape away to get any writing done at all."

Which is what I did.

The monks, most likely, would tell me that my spiritual well-being is more important than anything I might write.  But, as with the scientists, they and I simply do not speak a common language.

And for those of you who are big Kindle readers . . .

Somebody over on Facebook alerted me that Amazon has The Best of Michael Swanwick available in Kindle format for three bucks.  For a collection of stories that took me over a quarter-century to write, that's pretty cheap.

You can find it here.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Voyage to Atlantus (sic) and Back


It's Thursday, it's hot, and frankly my dear I don't give a damn.  So I'm going down the Shore (as we say in these parts), rather than waste my day writing brilliant fiction you'd love to read.  "Let's spend a day being perfectly predictable," I said to Marianne.  "We'll drive to Sunset Beach" (where the concrete ship Atlantus -- that's how they spelled it -- above, sank) "and have lunch.  Then we'll go to the beach in Cape May Point to swim and look for beach glass and do nothing constructive for several hours.  After which, we'll go to the schooner American and order drinks (a martini for me) and a few plates of raw oysters.  Then we'll go to the market at the Lobster House and buy seafood for dinner.  And so home, possibly pausing en route to buy some fresh corn from a farm stand."

Rather than saying "But that's what we do every time," Marianne replied, "Okay."

We are well suited to each other, she and I.

And Tom Purdom chided me . . .

Gently, of course, because he is a gentleman, Tom Purdom called me on a point of fact and a point of nuance for yesterday's post.  The point of fact was that Franco was never overthrown.  He died peacefully, alas.  It was careless of me to imply otherwise.  But because the image of Tom Purdom, rapier in hand, slaying the monsters of histories is astonishingly cool, I'm going to pretend otherwise.

Factually, mind you, Tom is unerringly right.  Always.  Where he says one thing and I another, you should trust him unfailingly .

The point of nuance he wanted made was that the credit claimed devolved not to him but to all science fiction writers, myself (even) included.  But, that being the point of what he wrote, I'm not willing to steal his insight.  If you want to know what he actually meant, you'll have to read his essay.  Here.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tom Purdom, Hero of Liberty


Over at the Broad Street Review, illustrious Philadelphia science fiction writer Tom Purdom contemplates the future -- specifically his own future. 

Tom doesn't think his stories, excellent though they are, have much chance of being assigned reading in future high schools or carefully scrutinized by future civilizations.  Still, he reflects, they have had their influence.  It was he, for example, who overthrew Generalissimo Francisco Franco.  A small accomplishment, perhaps, but his own.

And, speaking personally, I am proud to be the friend of the man who overthrew Franco.

You can find out what I'm talking about by reading his essay here.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lord Dunsany's Lost Tales


Once again, my mailbox is my friend.  I've just received Lost Tales Vol 1, a chapbook containing ten works of previously unreprinted prose fiction by Lord Dunsany.  Here's how the Pegana Press ("dedicated," as it says, "to printing deluxe limited editions using traditional letterpress equipment and materials by hand")website describes it:

 Previously uncollected tales from 1909 to 1915. Introduction by Michael Swanwick. Fine letterpress edition in chapbook format, hand sewn with two color Irish linen thread and printed on german paper using Goudy types and ornamentation. These 10 stories were retrieved from their original magazine printing and are now published together for the first time with the approval of Lady Dunsany and the Estate. None of these stories have been reprinted since their magazine appearance. Limited to 128 hand numbered copies; 30 pp.
Which is to say, it's not for people who like to read in the bathtub and let their cats make nests of books under the bed.  And at seventy-five dollars a pop it's nothing I could normally justify buying.  But, as you'll note, I wrote the introduction and so . . .

The table of contents is:


It's a lovely chapbook and printer-publisher Mike Tortorello is to be commended for creating it.  Serious collectors can find the ordering information here.

And, sadly . . .

Phyllis Diller died the other day.  She was a very smart woman who knew more than her share of pain.  In one of her books she had the best possible advice on how to clean a casserole dish that has that baked-in almost impossible to eradicate grunge on it -- bake a casserole in it, give it to a neighbor, and wait for them to return it clean.

Diller also did something that any one of us who ever wondered about whether Coca-Cola really rots your teeth or not should have done but didn't.  When she had a tooth extracted, she took it home and dropped it in a bottle of Coke which she then sealed and placed in her refrigerator.  A month later she took it out and guess what?  The tooth was unchanged.

So she wasn't just a comedian who made fun of her own looks and life as a suburban housewife.  She had a first-rate mind.  We are poorer for her absence.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Michael Andre-Driussi Strikes Again


See what I have!  I am now the envy of every admirer of Gene Wolfe who happens to be of a scholarly bent. 

Michael Andre-Driussi is the author of Lexicon Urthus and The Wizard Knight Companion, both of which are indispensable reference works for the serious Wolfean or Wolfeist or Werwolfe or whatever the heck you'd call those of us who enjoy delving deep into the master's works.  To this select company we may now add Gate of Horn, Book of Silk: A Guide to Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun

This is the easiest possible book to review because if you need it, you know that you do and you've probably just now returned to this post all in a sweat to find out why you can't find it on any of the online booksellers.

That's because it's not scheduled to be published until sometime in, um, October I believe.  Here, though, just to give you a taste, is a single entry from the Long Sun half:

Xiphias, Master   "a one-legged fencing teacher" (III, list); "Silk's self-appointed bodyguard" (IV, list).  Auk introduces Silk to Master Xiphias as a new student (I, chap. 13. 324).  Having lost a leg to treachery, Xiphias now has a removable prosthetic made up of pieces from five others.  (See NUMEROLOGY.)  He thinks Silk is left-handed and has studied under another sword master.  (On the other hand, Silk's right arm has been injured in his night at Blood's mansion, which might cast doubt upon Xiphias's professional opinion in spotting a wound, or the behavior compensating for a wound, as well as gauging sword-fighting ability.)
     During the revolution of Viron, Xiphias participates in the battle of Cage Street and kills five troopers (III, chap. 6, 229).
Zoology: a genus of fishes comprising the common swordfish.

and, what the heck:

yataghan   one of Xiphias's swords (III, chap. 6, 232).  A type of Turkish sword used from the mid-16th through the late 19th centuries.  The single-edge blade, measuring 60 to 80 cm (24 to 32 inches), curves forward like the Iberian flacata or the Greek kopis.

In a better world people like Andre-Driussi would create books like this, uncommercial though they may be, simply because they ought to exist.  The fact that he and they nevertheless exist in our own, fallen universe is inexplicable.  Divine intervention may well be involved.


Friday, August 17, 2012

The Treasurer's Report


At a convention recently, a writer who entered the field at about the same time I did and who probably wouldn't appreciate being quoted in this context, observed that one of the advantages of growing old is that you know a lot of things younger people don't.  He was talking about things known simply because he was there at the time. But it strikes me that it equally applies to pop culture.

For example, how many young people nowadays know that the humorist Robert Benchley also starred in many movie shorts of  his own devising?  For that matter, how many young people have ever heard of Robert Benchley at all?  When I was a kid, they taught his essays in school.

Anyway, above is Benchley's best-known movie short, "The Treasurer's Report."



Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Fire Gown


Great news for those who happen to be me!  The Fire Gown is up on  This is the second of the Mongolian Wizard stories and the first which finds Ritter working for Sir Toby.  I am of course prejudiced, but I like these guys a lot and I'm delighted with how this story came out.  But then, like most writers, I write stories which I want to read and which, inexplicably, nobody else is writing.  So I am extremely happy.

Also, the good folks at Tor once again commissioned an illustration from Gregory Manchess.  That's it up above.  Beautiful stuff, eh?  I've expressed my delight with Manchess's work before.  So I'll content myself with observing that it's the kind of artwork that, deep down, a writer thinks he or she deserves.

You can read the story here.

And as always . . .

I'm been home from Newfoundland for most of a week and so, inevitably, I'm on the road again.  But I'll do my damndest to have a new post up tomorrow morning.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Harry Harrison


Harry Harrison died earlier today at age 87.  I met the man only briefly and exchanged just a few notes with him, but he was a vivid writer and a lively presence in the science fiction world.  We are much poorer for his loss.

And I'll go to my grave knowing that I still owe that drink I promised him.  Rest in peace, Harry.

You can read Christopher Priest's excellent memorial in the Guardian here.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again


I'm in print again!  It's a funny thing about the writing biz that because books come into print a good year after you write them, the times when you're busiest the public bookshelves are emptiest.  Conversely, when the racks are filled with new work, you're probably at your least productive.  So however it looks like you're doing is usually exactly wrong.

Thank God, then, for reprints.  They help keep the world aware of your existence when you're working the hardest.  As I am, on two novels and God only know many short stories.

Two paperbacks came in the mail today.  One, shown above, is Other Worlds Than These, edited by the exemplary John Joseph Adams.  It's a whacking big fat trade paperback (technically known in the industry as a "bug-crusher") collection of parallel world and portal fantasy stories.  Which contains my own "An Empty House With Many Doors," one of a select sub-set of my stories which can be read as love letters to Marianne.

Also in the mail is David G. Harwell's and Kathryn Cramer's annual Year's Best SF 17.  This has my own "For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I'll Not Be Back Again."  It's a far more intensely personal story than you'd guess from reading it.  I saw Gerry Adams just as the story describes, found the holy well in the Burren, and hoisted a pint in the Fiddler's Elbow.  That was my grandfather Michael O'Brien, after whom I was named, who dies on the first page. 

Literally and figuratively both, I have lain down on the Stone of Loneliness.

When a writer unpacks one of his stories to high school students, as I've done in my time, they find it hard to believe that so many things can have gone into what they see as a simple diversion.  So  much emotion, so many facts, so much autobiography.  To their doubting but honest young faces, I reply, "You don't know the half of it."


Monday, August 13, 2012

Kill Your Darlings


I've got another mini writing lesson today, this time about cutting excessive description.  But because using bad amateur prose for an example is like tasering fish in a barrel, I'm going to use a paragraph from an Isak Dinesen story.  Then, because all prescriptive writing advice is inherently flawed, I'm going to critique my own critique.

Got that?  Let's go.

The Critique

Here's the first part of a paragraph of "The Fish":

They rode through the forest.  In the dripping-wet woods, the young leaves were still soft and slack, silky, less like leaves than like petals, and drooping in the sweet forest-air like seaweeds in deep water.  Under the tree-crowns the forest-road was filled with translucent clarity, and with the live, bitter fragrance of fresh foliage and flowers of maple trees and poplars.  In the fine drizzling rain the birds sang on all sides; the stockdove was cooing in the high branches as they rode beneath them.
So what's wrong with this?  Everything except the first sentence.  It's vague, clogged with adjectives, hyphenated to a fare-thee-well, leans heavily on cliches and after a while the words all run together in a sodden mass of generic description.

I'm sure a great deal of work went into this block of prose.  But at this point adding more work will not improve it.  Everything (except that first sentence) must be torn out and the writer must start again from scratch.

This time, however, the writer should abandon that overdecorated and overstuffed Victorian mode of description.  One of the greatest influences on Twentieth Century prose was the invention of cinema followed shortly by the realization on the part of writers that simple clean actions and images can do the heavy lifting that previously was the job of press-gangs of adjectives.

Now let's look at the final sentence of the paragraph, which I left off of the above:

Once, a fox crossed the winding road in front of them, stopped a second and gazed at the riders, his brush on the ground, then slid off, like a small red flame extinguished in the wet ferns.

Now that's more like it!  It's vivid, it's memorable, and the simile at the end is something the readers can put in their pockets and carry away with them.  It should be kept intact.

Mind you, the prose I want cut is actually pretty good.  I'm sure that Dinesen was quite attached to it.  But if you want to get anywhere as a writer, you've got to learn to kill your darlings.  

And now . . .

Critiquing the Critique

What's wrong with the above critique?  One thing, really, and it can be phrased in two different ways.  Either:

Many readers like this story exactly the way it is.


The critique presupposes that there is only one way to write well -- my way.

De gustibus non disputandum.  Or, as Avram Davidson like to say, Of taste and scent, no argument.  When writers talk about what is good and bad in writing they are almost always speakin to themselves.  Because one has to keep a constant eye on one's own prose to keep from backsliding, falling away from the high standards that one has painfully built up over the years.  The danger is that said writer might come to believe that those local truths which apply only to oneself are universals.  And the greater danger is that the gonnabe writers he is addressing might make that mistake as well.

Because good writing is whatever you can get away with.  Period.

So if you're still in the learning-your-craft stage, take the above critique and do your best to apply it to your own work.  If it helps, then keep it.  But if it doesn't, you should discard it without guilt or regret.

Because there's no such thing as One Size Fits All pantyhose.

Above:  Me, sitting on the Devil's Chair atop Thunderbolt Hill in Brigus, Newfoundland.  I felt quite at home there.  (Photo by Rob.)


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Home Again Home


I'll be traveling all day and my plane starts boarding in a couple of minutes, so this will be brief.

To mark my departure from Newfoundland, here's a scenic snapshot of the coast somewhere.  I'm not sure where, really.  It could be almost anywhere.  Newfoundland is ungodly beautiful.  I commend it to you with a clean conscience.


Friday, August 10, 2012

North American History 101


Yesterday, I visited the site of North America's oldest successful British settlement.  Which is . . . ?

Let's not everybody raise their hands at once.

Okay, here's a hint.  They celebrated their 400th anniversary in 2010.  No, no, not Jamestown -- that was an abject failure.  One more hint:  Squanto showed up to advise them.  No, not Plymouth.  He sauntered down there after the original settlers advised the Pilgrims to occupy an abandoned Indian village there.

Give up?  Cupids, Newfoundland.  They've only recently begun excavating the original site.  Shown above is the house frame they built over the first great building, half of which was for storage and the other half for habitation.  Yet to be found are the blacksmith shop (though they're closing in on it) and the brewery.  I really think that some Canadian beer giant needs to fund that last part of the dig.

Part of the reason so few people in the U.S. have heard of Cupids is that the local folk are too kind to rub our faces in the fact that the inhabitants of their first British colony weren't afraid of hard work.  Unlike the fops and wusses of Jamestown.  So they just say it's the first Brit colony in Canada.

Tactful, really.

And yesterday . . .

I went to a screech-in last night and kissed a cod.  So today I can proudly say:  Ich bin ein (honorary) Newfoundlander.  And very happy about it too.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dismembrance of Things Past


The terrifyingly talented Lee Moyer has posted a con report about his experiences at Readercon and since he included the cover he created there for Dismembrance, the story that Elizabeth Bear and I created during the con (with photographs of volunteers by the audience by Kyle Cassidy), I figured it was fair game.  That's it up above.

I don't think it's yet been decided what will be done with this really cool little bit of rare wonder but I figure that's Kyle's problem, not mine.  It was all his idea anyway.

Anyway, as Lee says, Is there anything more fun than tattooing Tom Purdom?

You can read it all here.

And am I having a great time . . . 

 In Newfoundland?  Yes, I am.  I'm in a bit of a rush today so I won't go into detail.  But allow me to recommend Afterwords, a used book store in St. Johns.  Great selection, very cheap.  I was enthralled.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Amelia Earhart Triumphant


When you're planning to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo, you want to simplify the task as much as you honestly can.  So Amelia Earhart chose the easternmost part of North America -- Newfoundland -- to begin her flight.  From an aerodrome above Harbour Grace, she flew into history.

It's only human to fixate on the mystery of her tragic death.  But, really, this is what we should remember her for -- a very real and difficult accomplishment.

Above:  The Amelia Earhart monument in Harbour Grace.  Below:  The strip from which she (and other pioneers of aviation) took off, now maintained by the Canadian government as a national monument.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Giant Squid of Dildo


Summer weather varies from year to year in Newfoundland.  Several people told us that last year they had no summer, and one shopkeeper said that at this time a year ago he went around wearing gloves.  But the weather on this trip has been perfect.  When I step outside in the morning I'm stopped dead by the clean smell of the air, and then by the warm feel of it on my face.  It doesn't hurt that to a city kid's ears, Brigus is astonishingly quiet:  No planes flying by overhead and only rarely does one hear a car go by.  If you were here with me now, you'd be casting a speculative eye on the houses that are up for sale.

Yesterday we went to Heart's Content to see where the Transatlantic cables come out of the ocean and the building there (now preserved as a museum) where the message traffic was handled.  (Photo of me clutching one of the cables below.)

We also went to see the Giant Squid of Dildo, a some-expenses-spared replica of the giant squid that washed up nearby.  The story is that some men were out in a small boat collecting firewood when drift ice forced them to put ashore on an inconvenient strand and walk home.  The next day they went back to recover the firewood and found a forty-foot squid had washed up there.

Sometimes reality comes up with a story that you could make up.

That's me with the squid up above.

And because you all have dirty minds . . .

No, the town isn't named after you-know-what.  It's named after nearby Dildo Island.  And Dildo Island isn't named after that either.  It's named after the Basque fishing port of Dildo in Spain.  As for the Spanish fishing port . . . well, who knows what the Basques think?  They keep their own counsel.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Of Puffins and Whale Snot


My experience of whale watch cruises in New Jersey is that they take you out, show you some dolphins, fail to find any whales, and then give you a coupon for half off the next cruise to make up for your disappointment.

So it wa a refreshing change of pace to sign onto Gatherall's Puffin & Whale Watch in Bay Bulls.  They took us out, found a minke whale, then took us further out and found several humpbacks feeding.  They seemed to find our presence interesting, for they came over to check us out.  One passed directly under  the boat.  Another -- and this has got to be the highlight of the trip for me -- spouted right next to the boat.  It was so close that when I looked down I saw a rainbow and when I looked up the mist passed over my face.

No man with whale snot on his glasses can be entirely unhappy.

Then a quick swing around Gull Island which has thousands upon thousands of nesting puffins and murres.  So another lifetime desire -- to see a puffin -- checked off on the list.

Do you gather that I'm happy?  I'm very happy.  When we stopped for lunch, we saw more whales. Nobody can say that Newfoundland is ungenerous in her bounty.

And . . .

I'm back to adventuring in a few minutes, so there's no time to relate all our adventures.  Suffice it to say:  Many.   I'll post again tomorrow.

Above;  Mostly I didn't take pictures.  I was enjoying the experience too much to bother.  But on the way out I did snap the above.  There's an entire humpback whale under that fin.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beer and Cape Spear


Human beings are the only creatures on Earth who would go out of their way to stand on the easternmost tip of land in North America.  Which might sound dismissive on the face of it, but we're also the same species that created the Quidi Vidi (pronounced "kiddy viddy") brewery, which turns out the only beer in the world made from glacier water.

I visited both spots yesterday which, as you've probably guessed, means that I was in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

And now I'm off to look for puffins!  Will I find them?  Stay tuned tomorrow

Above:  The lighthouse at Cape Spear, the northernmost etc. etc.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Going Native


As you can see, I've adopted the local garb and am thinking seriously about going into commerce.

Yesterday was a long, mad dash from the Northern Peninsula to Brigus in southeastern Newfoundland near St. Johns.  We did take a ten-minute detour off the road at one point and were rewarded by seeing a bald eagle sitting on a rock in the water.  But mostly we covered ground.  Today we recover.  Tomorrow, it's back to the usual antics.

Brigus is a charming place, very old, home to sealing ship captains and Arctic explorer Bob Bartlett, who kept polar bears here on Molly's Island.  One attraction that's not mentioned in the tour books because it's not open to the public is Rockwell Kent's studio.  I was told that he was quiet friendly.  Then there was a pause and my informant said, "Well, every other year he came here and acted like he didn't know anybody.  But all the other times he was very outgoing, always in your house."

This part of the world appears to be thronged with things to see and experience.  I keep reminding myself that winter here lasts anywhere from ten to eighteen months.  Otherwise, I'd be pricing houses.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Last Important Writer is Dead


"As I make my way, gracefully I hope, toward the door marked Exit. . ."  Thus began Gore Vidal's last memoir, Point to Point Navigation.  I listened to it on disc while making a repeated 300-mile car trek between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the fact that Vidal himself narrated it added immeasurably to the experience.  The Old Trickster set out to charm the pants off his readers and auditors and settle a few old scores along the way and he succeeded admirably on both counts.

In one of Vidal's many interviews, he remarked that he "used to be an important writer" and the overmatched interviewer hastened to assure him that he was still important.  But Vidal said No, there was once a position of Important Writer, someone whose opinion would be routinely solicited on any matter of national import, but that position didn't exist any more.

That was quintessential Gore Vidal.  He set you up to defend conventional wisdom and then hit you with something so unexpected, so new to your experience, that you had to stop and think about it before responding.  Even then, after you'd made up your mind as to where you stood on what he'd just said, you were far from sure you were right.

He made you uncertain.  He made you think.

My conservative friends would say that he was a radical leftie, and maybe they're right.  Certainly, he made a hash of William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic Primary in Chicago.  But I think he was radical Something Else.  Most liberals don't view Abraham Lincoln as the worst American president ever and Teddy Roosevelt, creator of the National Parks system as an unmitigated disaster.

Whatever he was, Gore Vidal is now gone.  He was a born troublemaker, and he did his job with zest.  God (in Whom he did not believe) bless him. 

And what can I say but . . .

Yikes!  A Canadian-language-literate friend points out that a term I used for Newfoundlanders, which I'd heard used respectfully and with affection, is one of those words which are acceptable if you are one but otherwise emphatically not

So I've excised it from my blog.  All the people I've met here have been good folks and I wouldn't want to insult them for all the world.  My sincerest apologies if I have.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hat Trick Wednesday!

So today I was standing by the French bread oven in Port au Choix when Gail said, "I hear something snorting in the woods."  At which cue, the branches shook and out strolled a moose.

We backed away carefully, because she was only a short and savage charge away.  And then more trees trembled and there her calf.

Followed shortly thereafter by a second calf which we never got a clear snapshot of.  But who could complain an this point?

So, feeling pretty good, we started toward an archaeological site named Philip's Garden.  But partway there, we had to stop for a while to view the whales sporting in the distance.  Here's a shot of the fearless whale viewers:

After which, because today is a travel day, we hopped into the car and made our way down the coast.  At Torrent River, we stopped in the Salmon Interpretation Center, where we viewed the fish ladder through a window.  Here's Marianne:

Then we went down to the river below the falls, where Rob said jokingly, "This would be a good time for a salmon to leap out of the water."  Which one promptly did.  Twice.

That's a threefer.  I hope your day was equally happy and every bit as joyous asours


Another Thronged Day


There's too much in Newfoundland for me to see more than a fraction of it, and what I'm seeing is so involving that I haven't the time to tell you more than a fraction of that.  But Tuesday's highlights included:

Taking a reluctant leave of Dot and Madge, the cooks at Viking Village B&B.

Having lunch by the thrombolites of Flower Cove.

The Skin Boot Church.

Visiting maritime archaic Indian and paleoeskimo sites.

Bakeapple berry parfaits and figgy duff at the Anchor Cafe in Port au Choix.

And, most of all, chancing upon the Welcome Home Year games at Castors River.  We just missed the snowmobile races around the pond and since I had no idea those things could buzz across the surface of water, I was sorry to have missed it.  But we caught the cardboard dory race . . .  All boats made on-site from cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, light wood for bracing, and duct tape.  The ref waded out into the pond and the winner was to be the first person who rounded him and made it back to shore.

The referee shouted and the race was on!  Such a farrago of paddling, cheating, sinking, and boats folding in two you never saw in your life.  Everyone had a great time, the spectators included.  And I had a very pleasant conversation with a Newfoundland expat who now works in Ottawa but had returned to visit family and friends.  Lots of info on life thereabouts and what winters in Newfoundland are like -- aided by anecdotes from a friend in the public works service about digging out the roads with a front end loader.

Pretty much everybody here is somebody you'd like to be able to see once a week, buy a few drinks for, and then get to talking so you could listen.

And the trip has just begun.  I'll try to keep you informed.  But, as I said I can only convey a fraction of it.

Above:  At the tideline of L'Anse aux Meadows, tourists pile up rocks in imitation of Inuit territory markers.  This is one of the better ones.