Friday, November 30, 2012

Ice! On Mercury!


Yesterday NASA announced that, mirabile dictu, they had found ice on the north pole of Mercury, tucked away in the shadowed interior edges of craters where sunlight never reaches.  Given that the surface temperature of Mercury can be hot enough to melt tin, that comes as a surprise.

They also found organic (not to be confused with biological) materials on Mercury.  These, combined with the water ice, should provide valuable clues to the evolution of the Solar System and possibly even the the origins of life.

But that's not what I and pretty much every other science fiction writer in the world is focusing on.  We're all thinking:  Fuel.  Water ice -- and apparently there's a lot of it -- would make great propulsion mass for a nuclear-powered spaceship.  Which means that such a ship could be sent to Mercury at a fraction of the cost that a ship carrying a round trip's supply would.

Which means that a manned expedition to Mercury just got a lot closer in time than it was a week ago.  How close depends on how much political will various countries have for a vigorous space program, and whether civilization crashes between now and then.  But, with luck, the first men and women to set foot on Mercury may already have been born.

You can read the Guardian article here.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Origin of "Sword and Sorcery"


So much that seems obvious to us today was once quite the opposite.  I was recently reading It's Down the Slippery Cellar Stairs, a 1984 Chris Drumm chapbook of R. A. Lafferty nonfiction, and came across the following passage:

Science Fiction is a collection of guerrilla bands each challenging hte rights of the others to belong to the centrality.  The band most challenged by the others is 'high fantasy', sometimes called 'Sword and Sorcery'.  There is a lot of stylized sneering at 'S and S'.
Which is interesting because today any reasonably read fan of fantasy understands that sword & sorcery is not the same thing as high fantasy.  The usefulness of the term is essentially to sort works like Michael Moorcock's Elric stories and Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into one camp (sword and sorcery) and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice into another (high fantasy).  It's a useful distinction because the two groups really are engaged in distinct enterprises.  The one is more playful than the other while the other is more serious than the one.

But back in 1979, when the essay originally appeared, such distinctions were very muddy.  The difference between high fantasy and low fantasy (a term which, like S and S, has fallen out of popular use) seemed pretty clear -- high fantasy occurred in a created world and low fantasy occurred in our own.  But Lafferty, who was nobody's fool, managed to conflate sword and sorcery with high fantasy and identify them both with heroic fantasy.

This was possible because back then there wasn't a whole lot of scholarship in the science fiction genre (and what there was, tended to be resented; "let's keep science fiction in the gutter, where it belongs" being a common rallying cry) and far less in the fantasy genre.  If you wanted to look up a definition of sword and sorcery, you were out of luck.

Unless, that is, you had a copy of the April 6, 1961 issue of Ancalagon.

Ancalagon was what was then known as a "crudzine" -- term pretty much self-defining -- put out by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.   In it, there appeared a letter from Fritz Leiber, suggesting "sword-and-sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the heroic fantasy he and fellow fans loved.

The term might well have been forgotten (Ancalagon had a very small readership, but Philadelphia superfan (and later editor, publisher, agent, and pretty much everything else) George Scithers who got Leiber to expand upon the theme in George's prestigious heroic fantasy zine, Amra:

I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! 
So from the very start, sword and sorcery was defined as being equivalent to heroic fantasy.   Leiber did not specify it had to occur in an invented world, so it was not identical with high fantasy, a term which I suspect was invented rather later in the game.

But why did Leiber choose Ancalagon of all publications to name a sub-genre in?  I suspect he wrote more than one letter to more than one zine.  That's only speculation, of course.  Still . . .  it might be worth your while to go through Great-Great-Granddad's stash of fanzines, just in case.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees


Today is Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees's rebirthday.  Two years ago to the day, Marianne and I dropped into the Montgomery County ASPCA and fell in love with a tiny little cat we thought was still a kitten.  It turned out that Miss Hope was so slight because she was half starved.  Over the next couple of months, she almost doubled her weight, becoming . . . a slim, svelte cat.

Miss Hope is a Bengal, a breed created by crossing Asian wildcats with tabbies, and so she's separated from the jungle by only a handful of generations.  Bengels have long tails, large eyes, spots, an incredible stretch, and it was only after we got her home that we learned that they're "for experienced cat owners only."  Which is to say, they're very active and need lots of attention.  Miss Hope is a bit of jock, I'm afraid.

Luckily, Marianne and I have owned many cats over the years, so this is not a problem.

Happy Rebirthday, Miss Hope!  I trust you'll consider extending our contract.

Above:  Miss Hope reminds you that it's time to put up your holiday lights.  And then take a nap.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing Advice from Somerset Maugham


Here's a quote from W. Somerset Maugham.  It's taken from the introduction to his collection Creatures of Circumstance, published in 194t7.  In the intro, he rails against certain aspects of contemporary short fiction which genre readers and writers are still railing against. 

I read some time ago an article on how to write a short story.  Certain points the author made were useful, but to my mind the central thesis was wrong.  She stated that the "focal point" of a short story should be the building of character and that the incidents should be invented solely to "liven" personality.  Oddly enough she remarked earlier in her article that the parables are the best short stories that have ever been written.  I think it would be difficult to describe the characters of the Prodigal Son and his brother or of the Good Samaritan and the Man who fell among thieves.  They are in fact purely conventional types and we have to guess what sort of people they were, for we are only told about them the essential facts necessary for the pointing of the moral.  And that is about all the short story writer can do.  He has not room to describe and develop a character; he can only give the salient traits that bring the character to life and so make the story he has to tell plausible.  Since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire or in a group in the market place to listen to the telling of stories.  The desire to listen to them appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property.

Every word of this is true and wise, insofar as it applies to the sort of short story he admired.  And every word of it is false and wrong-headed insofar as it applies to the sort of short story he despised.

How is this possible?  The Master Curmudgeon himself explained it earlier in the essay, when he criticized Chekhov's admonitions on writing:  The simple fact is that Chekhov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

Gonnabe writers should keep this in mind:  Advice from writers on how to write the sort of thing they themselves write is usually very good.  Their advice on what not to write, however, is always suspect.

Thus endeth today's sermon.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Applegate's Circus of Flying Animals


While I was researching a story set in Philadelphia, I came upon the tale of Applegate's Circus of Flying Animals. James R. Applegate was an entrepreneur who had made a fortune with daguerreotype studios.  In 1890 bought the First Moravian Church in the Tenderloin district and erected an indoor carousel in the churchyard.  A circus of flying animals being simply a poetic  way of saying merry-go-round in the newspaper advertisements.

The attraction quickly became a playground for children during the day and adults at night.  For one half of the wooden structure housed an enormous theme bar, with waiters dressed as clowns, waitresses in tights, and waiters dressed as circus strongmen.  Also prostitutes -- lots and lots of prostitutes.  Which was convenient because there were also rooms on the second floor which could be rented by the hour.

Things got lively, the Moravians (who were allowed to stay in their church while they scouted out a new one) were upset, city reformers and the police got involved . . . and the building burned down.  James Applegate was on trial for running a disorderly house at the time, but the d.a. cut a deal letting him off with a suspended sentence because many of the young girls working for him had returned to their families and the shock of having to testify might force them back on the streets.

Mr. Applegate was known to be very generous to police officers and other members of the legal community.

This charming story can be found in more detail in Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love by Thomas W. Keels.  A book I am enjoying enormously.

The church and all the neighborhood around it were razed long ago.  All that remains is Franklin Square.  Which today includes a very nice carousel.

And speaking of tokens . . .

The merry-go-round token above, showing two asses and bearing the evocative slogan When Shall We Three Meet Again? is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.  Not in the National Museum of American History, as you might expect, but in the National Air and Space Museum.

That word "flying" misled them, apparently.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Small Egotistical Pleasures


Here's an application which, except for the price, I want.   At the Omote 3D Shashin Kan portrait studio in Japan, they've combined a 3D printer and a hand-held scanner so that you can have a small plastic figurine of yourself made.   They come in three sizes:  10cm for $264, 15cm for $402, and 20cm for $528.  Ouch.

Still, what they're buying in Japan is novelty and the services of a professional photographer who knows how to pose you so you look good.  In a few years, fingers crossed, we ought to have self-serve kiosks which will give you your figurine for a pair of sawbucks.  Sort of like those those photo booths that used to give you ten tiny photos for a buck.  I'll confess to looking forward to it --  O brave new world, that has such tchotchkes in it!

You can read the Japan Daily Press article here.

And speaking of Lafferty . . .

The consensus here and on Facebook seems to be that liking R. A. Lafferty's work is not a guy thing.  Which, speaking as an admirer of the man, I find a relief.  There's also been a certain amount of grumbling at how hard it can be find Lafferty's work. 

So I'm pleased to be able to hint that there may be some good news in the offing next year.  I'll let you know as soon as I have all the details.  Stay tuned!


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Question About R. A. Lafferty and Women


I spent most of the day writing and almost didn't post a blog because, mirabile dictu, nothing worth writing about happened to me today.

But then, for an essay I'm writing, I went looking for quotes about R. A. Lafferty and noticed something strange.  Almost everything I came up with had been written by men.

So here's my question:  Is Lafferty's work a guy thing?

I'd be  unhappy to discover that it was.  But either way, I need to know.

What's your experience?


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Boris Strugatsky, 1933 - 2012


Science fiction has lost another giant.  Boris Strugatsky died yesterday in St. Petersburg at the age of 79.  In collaboration with his brother Arkady, who died in 1991, he wrote 27 novels and I don't know how many short stories.  Their work was translated and published around the world.  Together, they were the most famous Soviet science fiction writers ever.

The quality of the translations of the Strugatskys' works into English varies.  But fortunately their single most famous novel novel, Roadside Picnic, has just received a new English language edition.

The premise of Roadside Picnic is that in the recent past powerful and incomprehensible aliens visited several sites on Earth, causing panic and evacuation . . . and then, after doing nobody knows what, departed.  Leaving behind a lot of strange artifacts, some of them valuable and most of them extremely dangerous.  These zones are fenced off by the government but, because there's profit to be made, criminals go in anyway.  Red, the protagonist, is one of these desperate men, these "stalkers," and he is one of our genre's great creations.

You can read io9's enthusiastic review of the new translation here.  The book has an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky in which he details the heartbreaking process by which he and his brother submitted the book to the censor over and over again, removing or rewriting sections of it not for ideological reasons but because the censor thought of science fiction as a children's literature and thought Red should behave in a more uplifting fashion.

The new edition restores the original material, making a great book even greater.  If you haven't read Roadside Picnic, then you really should.  Be sure to pick up the the Chicago Review Press version, with the cover image (right) taken from Stalker, a movie based on the novel. 

I am sure there will be many  memorials posted across the Web and around the world in days to come.  In the meantime, you can read the Locus notice here


Monday, November 19, 2012

"Divine Intervention May Well Be Involved"


I drove out to Maple Tree Farm this morning to pick up our organic, free-range, ecologically virtuous, and quite possibly spiritually-enlightened turkey for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered that we'd just bought a 34-pound bird.  There's going to be leftovers this holiday!

And you know you like a book when . . .

Blurbing a book is kind of a drag.  It takes real work to come up with something good, something that might convince a wavering browser that this book is something he or she will really enjoy.  Mere praise isn't good enough -- it has to be targeted praise, words that will make those readers who will like this particular book realize that this particular book is the sort of thing they'll like.  A blurb that will work for Moby-Dick will fall flat on an Agatha Christie novel.

So writing a blurb takes time.  Worse, periodically I run short on time.  Which is why I have a backlog of eight books I'm pretty sure I would like if I read them which I promised to blurb if I could only find the time, and yet (cough!) have not.

So the way the hierarchy breaks down is:  It's a compliment if I apologize for not having the time to write a blurb.  Because I'm pretty sure I would if I could.  It's a greater compliment if I actually write one.  And it's the biggest compliment of all if I'm thrilled to see it on the back cover of the book.

The other day I received a copy of Michael Andre-Driussi's 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.   There at the top of the back cover were the words:

"Divine intervention may well be involved."
  -- Michael Swanwick, Flogging Babel

Which made me feel doubly happy because not only was my name on the back of a book I particularly admired, but the blurb was taken from my happy gush of words, posted on this blog, on receiving an advance copy of the book.  So I had all the pleasures of blogging with none of the work.

My original post about the book can be found here.  To it I will only add that this is one physically beautiful book.  I'm extraordinarily happy to have it.

Above:  Yes, that's a tree-baling machine.  For Christmas trees.  At the farm market.  The dam that was Thanksgiving has broken and the flood of Xmas marketing is now raging at top speed toward Halloween.  It's possible we may live to see the Christmas sales starting on the fifth of July.  And our great-great-grandchildren...?


Friday, November 16, 2012

Flogging Gardner Dozois


Ordinarily, I only push my own books here.  But I'm going to make an exception this once, because Baen Books is selling a bundle of seven e-books -- five brilliant story collections, one brilliant novel, and one potboiler -- by Gardner Dozois.  This is very close to everything he's ever written, and at twenty-five dollars, it's a bargain. 

Should you buy it?  Well, if you've already some of Gardner's work, you know the answer.  But if you haven't . . . if you're one of those far too many people who are aware that Gardner is a brilliant, award-winning editor but haven't read any of his fiction . . . then yes, absolutely.

Here's what I wrote in the introduction to Strange Days:

Imagine you’re at a party in Gardner’s apartment. It’s not large, but he’s invited swarms of people, so it’s very crowded. Gardner keeps his awards on a little table not far from the door. People who have never been there before, young editors and the like, will eventually drift over to admire the thicket of Hugos for his work as an editor, and while there notice two Nebulas gleaming in their midst. Inevitably, someone will say, “I didn’t know Gardner was a writer.”
“Oh, yes,” one of us Old Hands will reply (we linger near the trophy table for this very purpose), “Gardner’s a much better writer than he is an editor!”

Which was true then, and is true now.  In addition to Strange Days, the bundle includes the collections A Day in the Life, Another World, The Visible Man, Morning Child and Other Stories, the stunning novel Strangers, and Nightmare Blue (the potboiler).  Even Homer wrote the occasional novel about a policeman tracking down a shape-shifting alien drug dealer. 

You can find the bundle of two novels and five short story collections here.

And . . .

Hero small-press publisher Michael Walsh would be very annoyed at me if I didn't mention that he still has copies of Being Gardner Dozois for sale.  This is a book-length interview I conducted with Gardner covering all his short fiction, story by story, in the order published, from "The Empty Man" ("Sucks! is the way we describe it in technical language," Gardner summarized) to "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows," which he began in 1978 and finished twenty years later.

In the interview I asked Gardner what did and didn't work about each story and he he was astonishingly frank, frequently funny, and always insightful.  I think of the book as a kind of postgraduate course for writers.

Also, it has a great cover by Omar Rayyan.  When Gardner's grandson with a little boy, the first thing he wanted to see whenever he came to visit was "the picture of Pop-Pop with the top of his head off."

Available from the usual sources or direct from Old Earth Books.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Puzzling Plot Twist


I saw Skyfall the other day and found it a pleasant diversion.   It's amazing to contemplate the fact that over the past half-century James Bond has gone from remarking that he would never listen to the Beatles without earmuffs to making a quip suggesting that he thinks being homophobic is uncool.  That's some major consciousness-raising.

But would someone explain to me what's up with Silva arranging to be captured by his enemies so he can be placed in an inescapable glass box within their headquarters and then break out and attack them from within?  (Above.)   Not only this a move that only a moron could come up with,  but it's exactly the same one that Loki pulled in The Avengers.  (Below.)  Are both movies quoting a classic -- and  monumentally stupid -- bad film I haven't heard of or what?

And as always . . .

I'm still on the road.  The Unlikely Adventures of Me will resume on my return.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Moderating Panels?


As always, I'm on the road again.  Since I don't have the time to write anything substantial, I thought that instead I'd ask a question.

Last weekend, I was at a convention and showed up for a panel to discover that, without being told, I'd been made the moderator.  The woman assigned the role told the con committee she wouldn't do it and then printed out the email from them saying they'd shifted off the responsibility to me. 

Without telling me, of course.

Well, that's par for the course.  But when I fired up the discussion, five seconds later, I had a panel consisting of myself, two Big Name People who were self-evidently qualified to discuss the topic, and two new writers who quite understandably were reluctant to inject themselves into the conversation.

Here's the question:  Given two people who were obviously smart but of whose work I knew nothing... what ought I have done to involve them in the panel?  Half the questions I lobbed their way were useless because they presupposed knowledge they didn't have.  I was in their situation back in the day, so I know that they had contributions to make, and when they did speak up what they said was interesting and to the point.  But mostly they were silent.

So what should I have done?  What could I have done?  What might I do when I find myself in this situation in the future?

Your ideas would be welcome.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Red-Shirt Conspiracy Redux


Remember the strange events I reported happening on election day?

If you don't, here's a quick recap:  Republicans made a major push to put minority observers in Philadelphia polling places, which (because of how the laws are phrased) meant they displaced existing poll workers.  Some were challenged and the folks who'd had the positions for years kept them.  The minority observers were all visited by people who told them they had to wear red tee-shirts.  Which, since it's against the law for poll workers to wear anything indicating party affiliation (voters, however, get a free pass and God bless America for that), was borderline illegal.  And, finally, any of the minority observers who were challenged for wearing gang colors or for displacing old cronies, did not stay to argue but immediately left.  Leaving the polling place undermanned.

Weird, huh?

A friend came up with an explanation.  Purely theoretical, I emphasize.  He said that these events were a loaded gun whose trigger was not pulled.  The Republican party, remember, thought this election would be as close as close, possibly a matter of hundreds of votes.  So, just in case Obama won by a hair and Pennsylvania could decide the election, they planted the grounds for a challenge and a recount.

Then, because the election wasn't at all close here, they did nothing.

I report this only because it's interesting and I for one was curious as to what the heck was going on.  But let's not rush to demonize the Republicans here.  This is, after all, Philadelphia, which was once characterized as being "corrupt and content."  Nobody who loves this city would pretend that the Democratic machine was any cleaner.

But maybe four years from now the poll workers should be educated as to what to do if something similar happens again.


Monday, November 12, 2012

This Glitteratti Life Part 6,398


Another year, another Philcon.  Some of the panels went swimmingly while others sank beneath our wisdom like a stone.  But I took photos of many good people, some of which are presented here.

The dapper Tom Purdom

Book dealers, Art and Becky Henderson, Lorna Carlson, and Chris Edwards

Writer Fran Wilde

Gardner Dozois in a subdued mood

Oz Drummond, overcome with joy

Genius comic artist Phil Foglio

And for those who require literary substance . . .

I recently read a very thoughtful essay on creator rights by Scott R. Kurtz, creator of the PVP cartoon.  Oversimplifying wildly, I can sum up what he has to say as:  Evil corporations don't steal creator rights; creators give away those rights and complain about it afterward.  He also explains how you and I can prevent that happening.

You can read the essay here.

And, sadly . . .

T. S. Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot died the other day.  She had a reputation as a dragon because she was very protective of her late husband's reputation.  But when I asked her permission to quote one of his unpublished letters for my biography of Hope Mirrlees, she very kindly granted it.  I got one heck of a kick out of that.

Top:  Editor, scholar, book dealer and bon vivant David Hartwell.  With, oddly enough, snickerdoodles.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Philcon and the End of the Auction


The auction for the framed, signed typescript of "From Ghoulies and Ghosties, Long-Leggitie Beasties..." ends in only a couple of hours.  There's still time to bid and still time to watch and root.

Remember, all proceeds go to Clarion West Writers Workshop, which is that most honorable of institutions, one that works hard to ensure that we'll have fantasy and science fiction stories in the coming decades.

You can find the auction here.

And this weekend . . .

In a few hours I head out for Philcon, currently held in Cherry Hill, NJ.  (For which reason, my son's waggish friends refer to it as Chillcon.)  It should be fun.

My current schedule is:


7:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two
 [with Alexis Gilliland (mod), Andrew Breslin, Lee Gilliland, and Sam Lubell]

8:00 PM in Plaza IV  
 [with  Sam Lubell (mod), Theodore Krulik, David Hartwell, and Michael Walsh]

11:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Three  
 [with Tom Doyle (mod), April Grey, Andrew C. Murphy, and Bernie Mojzes]


12:00 PM in Plaza V  
 [with Susan Casper (mod), Marilyn "Mattie" Brahen, Marvin Kaye, Steve Vertlieb,]

1:00 PM in Autograph Table  
AUTOGRAPH SESSION 1:00 - 2:00 (1276)

2:00 PM in Plaza V
 [with Oz Drummond (mod), Ty Drago, Tim W. Burke, and Mike McPhail]

5:00 PM in Plaza III  
 [with Darrell Schweitzer (mod), Lee Gilliland, Brian Thomas, and Earl Bennett]

7:00 PM in Plaza V
[with Ellen Asher (mod), Daniel Grotta, Allyn Gibson, and Sarah Hunter]

If you're there, be sure to say hi.

Above:  The fabled item itself, posed between my bust of Surplus and a lantern filled with keys.  I'm going to miss that thing.  But it's for a worthy cause.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Something's Happening Here . . .


This is mysterious.  My son Sean came back from a day as a poll worker to report with what sounds like half a conspiracy theory.

This year, it seems, the state Republican party made a major push to put "minority observers" in Philadelphia polling places.  Since each polling place can have only so many workers, this meant that some long-time workers were displaced.  Some of the displaced workers challenged the displacements and the judges sided with some of them and said they could keep their positions, which meant that there would be no minority observer at their polling place.

Got that?  Now it gets odd.  On election day, all the minority observers showed up in bright red shirts.  Plus, the workers who hadn't been displaced by minority observers had people show up at their houses beforehand who gave them bright red shirts and told them they were required to wear them at the polls.

It's illegal for poll workers to wear anything indicating political affiliation at the voting place. 

Now, some of the minority observers were confronted for wearing gang colors or because they'd displaced long-term cronies of those who remained.  To a man and woman they did not argue, but turned around and immediately left.  Which meant that the polls were undermanned.

Now, supposedly, the commonwealth Republican establishment is outraged at the treatment of the minority observers.

Aaaannnnddd . . . that's it.  Whatever's happening here -- if anything -- is not exactly clear.  Nor what the Republicans could possibly hope to get out of the situation.  But it's interesting, no?

This is politics as it's played in Pennsylvania.  "Land of Giants," as Steve Lopez used to say.

And speaking of collectibles . . .

 The Ebay auction for the framed and signed typescript of "From Ghoulies and Ghosties, Long-Leggitie Beasties . . ."  ends tomorrow at 10:56:32 Pacific Daylight Time.  So if you're a collector or if you're simply curious as to how much such items go for, that's the place to be.

Remember, every penny goes to Clarion West Writers Workshop.

The story is on sale here.  And it can be read here.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Commodity Fantasy


The other day, David Stone posted a thoughtful response to a blog entry here, noting that he had been shocked to learn that a lot of the really bad fantasy he read as an adolescent was consumed by adult readers.

Critic John Clute coined a term which explains this phenomenon and, since it's a useful one, I thought I'd share it with you:  Commodity Fantasy.

Commodity fantasy is work whose main purpose is not  to give the reader a satisfying experience, but to buy the next book in the series.  It's important that such a work leave the reader a little unhappy, a little dissatisfied, a little edgy -- and anxious to snatch up the next volume in the hope that it will provide the experience that the last book failed to.  The more like a pack of cigarettes (if you've never smoked, trust me -- cigarettes temporarily ease the craving but they never quite satisfy it) a commodity fantasy is, the more successful it will be.

Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories had some of the qualities of commodity fantasy.  Conan, it was stated up front was destined "to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."  But the Kull stories had taught Howard that all the fun was to be had during Conan's adventurous years and would abruptly cease once he became king.  So the reader never was going to see him fulfill his destiny.

Later, John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian stories took the Conan matrix and turned it into a cartoon of itself.  When we meet Brak, he's decided to make a trek to Khurdisan the Golden, the southernmost city of his world, apparently because it sounds kind of neat.  Story by story, he fights monsters and acquires supernatural enemies who try to stop him from reaching Khurdisan.

I read the Brak books when I was young because I read every fantasy book that came out.  There simply weren't that many of them.  For a time, I kept reading them because I wanted to know what would happen when he reached Khurdisan.  But finally I realized that he never would.

That's simply not what commodity fantasy does.

John Jakes went on to have a smash series of Civil War novels, and I went on to read other and better stuff.  Samuel Johnson was right when he said, "Why, let him read what he will.  He'll come round to better, by and by."  I don't suppose that reading commodity fantasy is any worse for you than smoking cigarettes -- something else I used to do -- and it's a heck of a lot easier to give up.

 Oh, and . . .

If you're in the market for an enigma machine, one is going up for auction in London.  It's expected to bring in forty to sixty thousand pounds.

You can read about it here.

Above:  There it is, the holy item itself.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voting Day


This is what democracy looks like.  Marianne and I got up this morning, walked over to the Knights of Columbus hall, voted, and then went over to Crossroads Coffee House for breakfast.  It wasn't very dramatic.

But that's the whole point, innit?  More times than not, I've seen my favored candidate go down in flames and somebody I despised (Richard Nixon and George W. Bush come to mind) elected president.  But I've never, even when I was young and hotheaded, been tempted to pick up a gun afterward.

Brilliant invention, the vote is.  We had a good turnout too.  I was number 62 and the polls had only been open some forty minutes.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Small Worlds


I'm working on a secret project, so Saturday i went to a miniatures show in Cherry Hill.  And what's that all about?  Dollhouses, basically, and dollhouse accessories.  There were things there would make even the most hardened non-collector feel a twinge of desire -- such as the detailed miniature, shown above, of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.

But there were also things that would confirm you in your opinion that here was an opportunity to spend far too much money.  Such as a $350 cut crystal bowl, small enough to balance on a fingertip.  It was exquisitely crafted, of course.  But buying enough crystal to make your miniature china cabinet look respectable would cost you several thousand dollars.  And then there'd be the rest of the room and house to furnish.

"There's your desk!" I said to Marianne, knowing she'd always wanted a nicely complicated rolltop.

 "For that money," she replied, eying the price tag, "I could buy a real one."

What struck me most strongly, though, was that these people were engaged in creating small, imaginary worlds -- fantasies, if you will -- and yet there was almost no overlap with the worlds of fantasy and science fiction.  No Baba Yaga chicken legged dollhouse or Moominhouse or 1950s Moon Base or Lothlorien elven tree-house  . . .  There wasn't even any overlap with the the ship-model building community, though the commonality would seem obvious.

My son is a shrewd social observer, so I asked him about this phenomenon.  "When a sub-culture is shrinking, the boundaries are patrolled more rigorously and the purity of the core defended more passionately," he said, adding that the sub-cultures shrink when the avenues to bring young people in disappear.  Model trains are a good example of this, because children aren't given train sets anymore.  Nor, apparently, doll houses.

Which explained why almost everyone at the show was old.  It wasn't just that so much of what was for sale was pricey -- there were lots of small and cunning creations within the reach of a modest pocketbook.   It was that this small world was steadily growing smaller.

I asked about comic books, which you used to be able to buy in every drugstore and (remember these?) magazine kiosk.  "There are still two routes into them," he said, "the movies and Saturday morning cartoons."

I didn't ask about genre fantasy, which I already knew was safe for the moment.  Fandom may be getting grayer and less welcoming to the young, but there are still lots of ways for young readers to discover fantasy and science fiction.  Still, it was a sobering reminder of what could easily happen . . . a dystopian future in which the readers grow steadily older and fewer and the books become increasingly more like themselves, predictable and stereotypical.  It confirmed me in my resolve to write some very, very strange fiction.

Immediately above:  Elements for the secret project.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Bid Early and Often!


The Halloween story is finished, but the auction for the original typescript has just begun.  The four by six inch typescript, printed in small text so the entire story fits on one page, has been signed, placed in a contemporary frame, and is now up on Ebay.

This is being done for the benefit of Clarion West Writers Workshop.  Not a penny of the proceeds will go to me.  In fact, I'll be paying for the postage myself.   So if you're a collector or need a present for a collector and or just think this would be a cool thing to have hanging on your wall, you can bid with a clean conscience.  Your money will be going straight back into the sf/fantasy/horror community.

You can find it here.  Or go to Ebay and type in "autographed" and "Michael Swanwick." 


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Air Lothlorien

  and aLast

Last night was Halloween and, for a miracle, we had lots of trick-or-treaters.  There aren't a lot of children on our street and only a few of us make an effort to be generous with the candy, so normally we don't get many visitors.

But last night we ran out of candy. It wasn't easy, either.

And above . . .

Just how big a deal are the Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit movies to New Zealand?  Pretty darned big, apparently.