Monday, December 31, 2012

The Joy of Lists (Part 2)


The video above was a commercial for Banco Sabadell and, given that it's been seen over eight and a half million times on Youtube, it's entirely possible that you're already familiar with it.  But what the heck.  Beethoven never grows old.

And . . .

Marianne pointed out that "The Dog Said Hello" made it onto Locus Online's shortlist of the best stories of the Twenty-First Century.  Which, given that the century is only thirteen years old, was easier to make it onto than the Twentieth Century shortlist.  Just check out its first ten stories:

  1. Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953)
  2. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973)
  3. Harlan Ellison, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” (1965)
  4. Harlan Ellison, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967)
  5. Arthur C. Clarke, “The Star” (1955)
  6. Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder” (1952)
  7. Robert A. Heinlein, “All You Zombies— ”(1959)
  8. William Gibson, “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981)
  9. James, Jr. Tiptree, “The Screwfly Solution” (1977)
  10. Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948)
That's a terrific lineup.   Personally, I'd substitute "Burning Chrome" for "Johnny Mnemonic," but that might just be because the movie version was so brain-searingly bad that it's left me traumatized. 

Here's the Twenty-First Century shortlist, courtesy of  The original posting had me tied with Ursula K. Le Guin.  Me!  Le Guin!  Dead even!  I bet you can imagine how elated that makes me feel.
  1. Ted Chiang, “Exhalation” (2008)
  2. Margo Lanagan, “Singing My Sister Down” (2004)
  3. Neil Gaiman, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (2006)
  4. Peter Watts, “The Things” (2010)
  5. Michael Swanwick, “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” (2001)
  6. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Bones of the Earth” (2001)
  7. Kij Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”
  8. Daniel Abraham, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” (2007)
  9. Kij Johnson, “Spar” (2009)
  10. Alastair Reynolds, “Zima Blue” (2005)

The list can be found here.

The very, very, very long list, for those who really want to wonk out, can be found here.


Friday, December 28, 2012

Ranking the Unrankable


Over at Locus Online, they had a poll to decide the fifty best science fiction novels and fifty best fantasy novels of the Twentieth Century, and I managed to squeak on -- just barely.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter placed 46th on the fantasy list.

Which is very pleasant for me because it gives me the opportunity to explore the inherent flaw in such (admittedly fun to read, argue with, and/or have a book on) lists.

Let's start with my own work.  Is it really better than Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, which ranked 49th?  It's go more words, certainly, and more ideas.  But it's a safe bet that my book has had a lesser effect on world culture.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, is probably longer than my novel, and has become a part of the Canon, insofar as we have one anymore, and it was only 48th.

Up at the top of the list, nobody could argue against The Lord of Rings, which essentially created the fantasy genre, placing first.  And I certainly have no problem with George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones in number two place.  But The Hobbit at number three?  Even Tolkien himself had a few harsh words for its and-what-do-you-think-Bilbo-did-then? style.  (He said his children hated it.)

As for newly-minted Grand Master Gene Wolfe's masterpiece The Book of the New Sun placing eighteenth on the fantasy list . . .  The work is science fiction, as witness its also placing twenty-fourth (still criminally low) on the SF list.

But when you except those few books which belong somewhere near the absolute top of any such list, what you're left with is a terrific demonstration of the impossibility of ranking books as if they were Olympic runners or apple pies in the county fair.  Is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (41 and, once again, science fiction) just a smidge better than George Orwell's Animal Farm, ranked 42?  Or are we comparing lemurs and monkey wrenches?  Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (19 and yet another science fiction novel) is of vast importance to both science fiction and fantasy.  But is it really better than the book in twentieth place, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita?  Having walked in Woland's footprints in Moscow, I'm perhaps too much of a partisan to say.

It's all neon donuts and Western waterways, hawks and heartbreaks, movies and meatballs -- how can you measure such disparate works against each other?

You can't.  But it's a lot of fun to try.

So I applaud Locus Online for this enterprise.  And if you want to have even more fun, try this:  Make up a list of ten excluded books that should have made each list.  You'll find it's harder than it sounds to narrow your list down to such a small number.

You can see the lists (and methodology) here.

Above:  Detail from the brilliant wraparound cover Geoff Taylor did for the Millenium edition of my book.  Not only a great cover but an independent work of fantasy.  If only I could have peered into the future and seen it, I would have incorporated a couple of details into the text.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A West Philadelphia Christmas Carol


Last night I went to a friend's house in West Philadelphia to see Josh Hitchens put on his one-man performance of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in a Victorian-era living room, before a gas fire in the hearth.

That's luxury.

Hitchens did a bang-up job with a lively and convincing performance.  And of course the source material is bulletproof.  I've seen it performed by any number of actors, animate and inanimate, including the Muppets and Mr. Magoo, and it always (to a greater or lesser degree) works.  That's an amazing accomplishment.

My own traditional Christmas story is far less known.  But it has the advantage of being true.  I call it...

The Parable of the Creche

When first I came to Roxborough, a third of a century ago, the creche was already a tradition of long standing.  Every year it appeared in Gorgas Park during the Christmas season.  It wasn't all that big -- maybe seven feet at its tip -- and it wasn't very fancy.  The figures of Joseph and Mary, the Christ Child, and the animals were a couple of feet high at best, and there were sheets of Plexiglas over the front of the wooden construction to keep people from walking off with them.  But it was loved.

It was a common sight to see people standing in front of the creche, admiring it.  Sometimes they'd brought their small children to see it for the first time.  It provided a welcome touch of seasonality and community to the park.

Alas, Gorgas Park was publicly owned, and it was only a matter of time before somebody complained that the creche violated the principle of the separation of church and state.  When the complaint finally came, the creche was taken out of the park and put into storage.

People were upset of course.  Nobody liked seeing a beloved tradition disappear.  There was a certain amount of grumbling and disgruntlement.

So the kind people of Leverington Presbyterian Church, located just across the street from the park, stepped in.  They adopted the creche and put it up on the yard in front of their church, where it could be seen by all.

But did this make us happy?  It did not.   The creche was just not the same, located in front of a church.  It seemed lessened, in a strange way, made into a prop for the Presbyterians.

I was in a local tappie, shortly after the adoption, and heard one of the barflies holding forth on this very subject:

"The god-damned Christians," he said, "have hijacked Christmas!"

And while I'm on the subject . . .

Merry Christmas to all and on Earth peace to those of good will!  For those who celebrate other holidays (or none at all), my very best wishes.  Happiness for everybody, as the Strugatskys put it, free, and no exceptions!

Above:  This photo is actually of Josh Hitchens performing his one-man version of Dracula. But theater is theater and I'm rapidly becoming a fan of Hitchens.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Social Notes from All Over


It's been a busy weekend.  Saturday morning, Marianne and I went to Chinatown have dim sum with  friends -- father, mother, son, and grandson.  Then it was off to Brooklyn for a Christmas party.  Today, we spent tidying up in preparation for unanticipated Christmas gifts.  Then, in an hour or so, we're off to West Philly for a one-man production of A Christmas Carol, presented in the living room of friends.

Pictured above:  Marianne and superstar editor Ellen Datlow in Brooklyn.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Playing Hookey Again


I should have spent the day writing and I should have posted a blog hours ago and I should have been a good boy . . .  But I wasn't.  I lured Marianne to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (interior of the Great Hall above) where we once again were knocked out by Joseph Cornell's art.  Then we went down to the Oyster House on Sansom  Street for fresh shucked oysters accompanied by a glass of white wine (Marianne) and a martini (me).  Then it was off to the Pen & Pencil club for conversation with Tom Purdom, Jamie O'Boyle and other wits and dignitaries.

So you guys get short shrift today, and I apologize for that.  But, damn!, do I live a great life or what?

And I wish the same for you.

Immediately above:  Marianne and I toast your good health in the Oyster House, while in the background far to the left, all unnoticed, a patron waves frantically for help as he is eaten by lobsters.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

The War on Krampus


Here you go, proof positive that there's a war on Christmas -- and it's being fought by Christians.  How else to explain the shameful sanitizing of the ancient Solstice season by removing pretty much all reference to Santa's dark Other -- Krampus?  Particularly when there appears to be not one but hundreds of him?

Seriously, though, a Krampus parade would be a fine addition to the winter holidays.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Glittercomixatti Life . . .


On Sunday, I went to the first Locust Moon Comics Festival at the Rotunda in West Philly.  It was everything such a small, regional indie event should be:  a little seedy, a little needy, a lot aspirational.  I don't have a lot of comix cred to my name but I've hung out some with graphic artists, have the mandatory box or three of undergrounds in the attic crawlspace, and will admit to being influenced by the old B&W monthlies, Eerie and Creepy.  So I like to check in on the scene every now and again, just to see if I can learn something.

Now that I'm beginning to grow Old, I can't help but feel protective toward all these talented (and semi-talented and in some cases hemi-demi-semi-talented) young people.  I wanted to warn them about what a difficult road they were on, and how hard the artistic life can be, even for those who succeed at it.  But then I reflected on how utterly without talent I appeared to be when I was their age, and how a good,  Dutch Uncle-ish lecture could have prevented me from ever becoming a a writer.  So I stayed my tongue.

God bless 'em all. They were to a man and woman (a surprising and heartening percentage of the introverted young artists were female), brave and noble.  I bought a few comics, which I later read with pleasure, and I look forward to dropping by the event again next year.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012



Inexplicably, I spent all day today running around shopping.  I don't how the folks out in the burbs manage it, or why they seem to enjoy it so much.

The Italian Market is always fun, though.

Above:  Marianne in the Market.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Guardian Tortoise


Look what Marianne bought for me over the weekend!  A Chinese tortoise.  Marianne says it will stay in my office until the next Darger & Surplus novel is done.

The only question I have is:  Exactly what does the tortoise mean

There are a number of readers here who know a lot about China, so I'm asking this publicly:  What the heck?

Knowledgeable responses are welcomed.


Friday, December 14, 2012

A Houseboat on Titan


Pop quiz.  What's the largest sea on Titan?

Why, Kraken Mare, of course.

Now the Cassini probe has discovered the largest river to date on the second-largest moon in the solar system  (Ganymede is largest; our own Moon is number five), and it flows into Kraken Mare.  The surface of Titan is so cold that water-ice is as hard as granite.  So, by the best analyses, the seas and rivers are made up of ethane and methane.

Titan, which you all know is the largest moon of Saturn, presents a particularly difficult problem in mapping because it has a murky atmosphere in which all kinds of interesting chemical reactions are going on, so none of its surface is visible from above.  All the mapping has to be done by radar.

The common reportage is comparing this new discovery to the River Nile, which is silly when you consider that the new river is somewhere between 200 and 250 miles long, while the Nile extend over four thousand miles.  But it's still a terrific discovery, especially when you're as old as I am.

When I was a kid, all the solar moons other than our own were mysterious and blurry spots on photographic plates.  Very little was known about any of them, other than that they were there.  Now, there are maps of many of them.

I'm particularly interested in news from Titan because ten years ago I wrote a story set there which went on to win a Hugo Award.  It was called "Slow Life" and was based on dozens and dozens of NASA technical papers which I downloaded from the Web and read and internalized until they told me a story.  The presence of ethane-methane lakes and seas was purely speculative at the time, and I took a chance on them existing because I could have a better story if they did.  So I really lucked out there.

Looking at that grainy radar photo above, though, I feel my imagination stirring.  Had it existed when I wrote "Slow Life," I would almost certainly have had a scene set on a raft on that river.  I would have drawn a large map and named every tributary, twist, and cove of it.  I would have sent my astronaut on a perilous journey to the north, into Kraken Mare, there to make some strange discovery.  I would have sent my mind to live there for a few months.  And I would have written a very different story than the one I did.

That story is out there to be written.  There's a flood of great new information still pouring in and being made available to all the world for free by NASA, and God bless them for that.  I'm not likely to return to Titan because then I'd be competing with myself.  But if you're a new or gonnabe writer, why not give the possibility some thought?  SF editors love hard SF because it's popular and because they get so little of it.

Feel free to write a better story than mine.  I won't mind.  The next Hugo could be yours.

You can read about the (still unnamed) river here .


Thursday, December 13, 2012

You'll Believe A Dragon Can Fly


Okay, this is, on the face of it, an astonishing hack.  This is not wire work and not CGI.  The dragon is really flying.  But how?  pause for a minute and try to figure it out.  I'll confess I had to look it up, though once the trick is revealed it seems obvious.

Here's a tip:  The flight took place at night.

Gizmodo has the explanation.  Click here to find out.

And long ago and near away . . .

In 1976, four individuals convened for a conversation on ARPANET.  They were, implausibly enough, puppeteer Jim Henson, painter Sidney Nolan, conceptual artist Yoko Ono, and philosopher Ayn Rand.

You can find this unlikely and unintentionally hilarious dialogue here.

UPDATE:  Alerted by one of this blog's readers (see below), I discovered that the above conversation was a hoax -- or, as its creators would have it, an art installation -- by Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq.

I apologize for helping to spread misinformation.  And shame on me for falling for it.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wassail! Wassail!


There are roughly . . .  No, wait, let me get the exact number.  Ah!  There are precisely a kajillion recipes for Wassail available on the Internet.  Here's one:

Wassail Punch

3 pints brown ail
half pound white sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spices (cinnamon or allspice, nutmeg, mace)
6 cloves
7 roasted crabapples
1 pint hard cider
3 lemon slices

Roast the apples for 35 minutes at 400 degrees.  Place them at the bottom of the serving bowl and dust with spices.  Then put the beer, cider, sugar, and cloves in a large pan and heat (but do no boil) on the stove, stirring until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is quite hot.  Pour the mixture into the serving bowl, float the lemon rings, and serve.

I got this recipe at the Drinking With Dickens event on Monday.  It's worth mentioning that there are nonalcoholic wassail recipes that are every bit as festive.  And, as you can guess, the recipe can be adapted to taste.

And speaking of hot festive drinks . . .

My own favorite Yuletide drink is mulled wine, not for its flavor (though that is excellent) but because we mull the wine the old-fashioned way:  By placing a poker in the wood stove until its end is red-hot, and then plunging the hot iron into the drink.

What a terrific moment that is!  The wine bubbles and boils and a great hiss of steam shoots out.  If you can't be merry after that, there's no hope for you.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Smoking Bishop for the Workhouse Boy


Last night I went to the Drinking With Dickens event at the Dark Horse Tavern in Society Hill, Philadelphia.  This was the kind of pleasant eccentricity I live in the city for.  There were a few brief readings and several pleasant toasts.  Cups of smoking bishop and wassail were quaffed.  And carolers (shown above in a photo taken by Don Lafferty) sang era-appropriate holiday songs.

Mostly, though, people chatted and enjoyed each other's company.  It was, I trust, the sort of evening that the workhouse boy who made good would have enjoyed.

And because you're curious . . .

 Here's the recipe for smoking bishop:

6 Seville oranges
1/4 pound sugar
1 bottle dry red wine
1 bottle port

Bake the oranges in the oven until pale brown and then place in a warmed earthenware bowl with five cloves pricked into each.  Add sugar.  Pour in the dry red wine, but not the port.  Cover and leave in a warm place for about a day.  Squeeze the oranges into the wine and pour it through a sieve.  Add the port and heat but do not boil.  Serve in warmed goblets.  Drink hot.

Above:  My thanks to Don for letting me post his photo.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Unpublished and Doing Better Than You Think



I got into a brief conversation on Facebook with a young writer who posted that she had finished her first novel and was “saving up to have a professional editor go over it.”  So I suggested she consider submitting the novel to a few New York publishers (one at a time, of course) before going the self-publishing route.  I didn’t claim that was the only way to go.  But there are a lot of advantages to going with a publishing house, including the fact that they provide the editing free.  And, of course, pay you an advance.

The writer replied that  she’d assumed she would have no shot without a well known agent backing her.

This is not true, I told her.  Go to a few science fiction conventions.  Attend the panels.  Politely speak to published writers, tell them you've written a novel, and ask for advice.  Most fantasy and science fiction writers are far friendlier and more approachable than you’d suspect.  I’m guessing that you’re planning to self-publish.  Don’t do so until you’ve talked with some writers who have successfully done so and listened seriously to their advice.

I don’t have the time (I am reminded by various editors who are figuratively frowning over my shoulder and tapping their watches to remind me that I do have deadlines) to correspond with this young writer and give her all the useful advice she requires.  But I will say this to her, and to all of you who find yourself in a position analogous to hers:  You’ve already done the hard part.  The overwhelming majority of those who want to be writers never do finish a book.  So stand up and take a bow.  You’re part of the one percent.

The whole business of learning how to find a publisher looks daunting to you now.  But it’s far less difficult than what you’ve done already.

And up above . . .

 I was at Pook & Pook Auctions the other day and discovered that the National Clock is going up on auction sometime in January.  This astonishing piece of folk art -- something like six feet tall -- has hundreds of little figures, both religious (the Crucifixion) and political (Uncle Sam and his monkey).  Apparently it was one of those strange things that made the rounds in the nineteenth century, supporting its owner on the contributions of awestruck yokels.

Just thought I'd share.



Friday, December 7, 2012

Esprit d'Escalier


Last weekend, I had dinner with a few local SF people and members of a college chemistry class who were working on a paper on changing representations of chemistry in science fiction, and one of the students asked if science fiction stories followed trends in the arts and movies and television.  I ignored the part of the question involving the arts because while there must be others, I'm the only writer I know who follows contemporary art specifically to find new story  ideas.  But I said that for various reasons print SF was far, far ahead of other media.

Without going into details, it was a not a bad rap and perfectly valid to boot.  But afterward, I was hit by what the French call esprit d'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase."  Which is when you realize, while you're on the stairs leaving the party, what you should have said earlier. 

What I should and didn't add was that while SF doesn't follow trends elsewhere in the arts, it for sure follows trends in the sciences.  When Gerard K. O'Neil came up with the idea of L5 colonies, a flock of L5 colony stories -- I wrote one myself -- appeared about a year later.  If you want to have some fun, subscribe to Science News and then watch its reportage turn into fiction twelve months later.

It's an obvious point, I know.  But I've been kicking myself for having missed it.  So you may consider this my venting.

Thanks for listening.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

And At The Very Last Minute . . .

When I began this blog, I promised to post every Monday and Friday, to the best of my ability.  To my astonishment, I only very rarely missed one of those posts.  On the whole, as a general rule, I've managed to post five days a week.  This was a lot more than I thought I could do.

Yesterday, I drove three hundred miles to Pittsburgh, and today I drove three hundred miles back.  Arriving home this evening, I thought there was nothing I could possibly say here.  But then I turned on the TV and found Casablanca

Two things struck me then.  The first was what a good actor Dooley Wilson was.  This was at a time when black actors only rarely appeared in Hollywood movies, and then as menials in roles they worked hard to make positive messages to the white majority.  When Ilse refers to to Sam as "the boy," it comes as a shock.  But it was routine then.

Watch the movie now, however, and Wilson's Sam is the equal of any of the other characters.

The other thing that struck me was how luminous the movie is, shot by shot.  It's as close to perfect as Hollywood ever got.  And yet, as it was being made, the movie was a fiasco.  Nobody knew how it would end.  Nobody knew what was going on.  Nobody knew whether Ilse still loved Rick.  But there was a big commitment of resources, so they simply plowed forward, doing as best they could.

To create a work of art.

This is the life of the artist, of the creator.  You simply go forward, doing as best you can.  The result looks like it sucks but you turn it in.  Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't.  Despair is the common lot.  It's very easy to give in.

If you don't give in, the result may well suck.  But once in a blue moon, it may be Casablanca.

Here endeth the sermon.  Go thou forth and commit literary sins no more.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Jeff Millar in Alternate Reality


Jeff Millar, writer of the Tank McNamara cartoon, died the other day.  I always liked that strip for its gentle humanity, positive spirit, and because occasionally the fact that Tank (and presumably Jeff) was politically conservative would surface.  And whenever it did, it was clear that Tank was a reasonable human being and bore no hatred for those who didn't share his views.  He was, in other words, rather like most of the conservatives I know personally.  As a liberal, I found that a very positive message.

Millar had exactly one science fiction credit, but it was a good one.  His story, "Toto, I Have a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore," appeared in Damon Knight's Orbit 17.  In it, a police detective responding to a reported attack of monsters finds himself acting like the hero of a bad noir movie.  He gets involved in an implausible love relationship with a female scientist, who is similarly appalled by the fact that she's not behaving the way real scientists do but like a science babe on TV.  They are caught in a distortion of reality caused by a teenage geek with godlike mutant powers.

It was hilariously funny.  My favorite moment is when a giant dinosaur, obviously made of papier-mache over chicken wire, appears, hung from strings that disappear into the sky, and the crowd of terrified citizens say, as one, "Oh, come on!"

How good was this story?  So good that a friend -- Jim Kelly, maybe? -- and I enthused to Ellen Datlow about it and urged her to commission more such stories from Millar.  Ellen was the editor of Omni at that time, and was paying the best rates in the field.   She could simply wait for the very best SF available to show up on her doorstep.  But she looked up the story, read it, agreed with us, and got in touch with Millar.

Alas, Millar replied that the comic strip took up too much of his time for him to oblige Ellen.  But in an alternative universe, he rose to the challenge and became one of the most beloved writers in science fiction.

In ours, we can only say it could have been.  Which is far, far superior to it never coulda happened.

Rest in peace, gentle cartoon writer.  We'll read your science fiction in a better world than this.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  Home soon.  Take good care of yourselves while I'm away, hear?


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

City Root Revisited


I drove down to Twelfth and Callowhill the other night to revisit what is probably the most interesting failed sculpture in Philadelphia.

City Root, by Keiko Miramori was originally commissioned for a park but was rejected because it cracked during the curing process.  (Nobody had every done anything quite like it before.) Now it lives in exile in Philadelphia. The new owner has clamped lights to its top which are turned on at night so that it glimmers darkly as you drive by.

The sculpture has become something unintended, a changing reflection on decay and mortality.  The cracks have widened enough that you can darkly glimpse bits of root inside. The solid parts of the cube have fractured and fractured again, so that it has filled up with shimmering planes and surfaces, pretty much hiding the roots and the stones and bricks caught up in it.

It was always a beautiful work.  But now it's become profound.

You can see my previous blog (with daytime pictures) here.


Monday, December 3, 2012

This Glitterati Life . . .


The group of writers which Tom Purdom refers to as the Philadelphia Writers Group and some of us (well, okay, me) call Purdom's Raiders met for brunch on Saturday. 

Sort of  visible above are (from left to right):  Camille Bacon-Smith, Tom Purdom, Marianne Porter, Gardner Dozois, and Susan Casper.  The empty chair is mine.  Not visible are Darrell Schweitzer and Mattie Brahan, who hadn't arrived yet.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Pop-up Chicken


Earlier today I went down to the Bainbridge Club at 1523 Bainbridge Street, here in Philadelphia, for a pop-up art show.  One of the artists was a friend, but I've gotta say I liked a good two-thirds of the art, and maybe more.  Prices ranged from twenty bucks to several thousand, so there was something there for every wallet.

Ordinarily I don't post on weekends, but the pop-up ends tomorrow (or as you're reading this, probably today) on Sunday, December 2.  So I do this as a favor to you.  Provided you live in Philadelphia, have tomorrow free, and like this kind of thing.  As I do.

Above: A light-up chicken in the window being adjusted by young artists.  Young artists are heroes.  We should support them.