Friday, February 28, 2014

Random Annotations: The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O


It's a quiet Friday and I have no news.  So I thought I'd begin an occasional series called Random Annotations, comments about aspects of my own fiction.  Here's the first:

The last paragraph of "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O" contains two elements worth noting.  The paragraph, in its entirety, is as follows:

He kick-started the Harley and with a roar they pulled out into traffic.  Crow cranked up the engine and popped a wheelie.  Off they sped, down the road that leads everywhere and nowhere, to the past and the future, Tokyo and Short Pump, infinity and the corner store, with Annie laughing and unafraid, and Crow flying the black flag of himself.

Short Pump:  A small town outside of Richmond, Virginia.  When I lived in Seven Pines, not far away, it was an easy joke, the ultimate small town.  Since, alas, it has grown considerably.

. . . and Crow flying the black flag of himself:  This is the only line in my entire body of work which exists in two forms, one written and the other oral.  When I do a reading of the story, the word Crow is repeated three times: ". . .  and Crow, Crow, Crow flying the black flag of himself."  Why?  Try reading it out loud.

Above:  I saw this road in rural Maryland a few days ago.  Annie and Crow are archetypes, of course, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they cast shadows and echoes throughout reality.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Elephants and Icebergs


Monday I gave a lecture at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Are you terrified yet?

Before you make a run for the Canadian border, I should clarify that.  I was lecturing Herbert Gilliland's science fiction writing class, which he titled How to Sell to Analog.  As I have indeed on various occasions sold to Analog (a friend told me that Stan Schmidt once said to him, "I've just bought a story from Michael Swanwick -- and it contains real science!"), I was qualified to be there.

The French have a useful expression, l'esprit d'escalier, which translates as "staircase wit," which is what happens when you think of the clever thing you shoulda said on the way out of the party, when it's too late to say it.  Inevitably, I've thought of something I should have said then but didn't.  So I thought I'd share it with you here.

One midshipman asked me a question about the use of science in the story.  My answer was solid.  But I should also have said that a great deal of science fiction is knowing the science but explicating it as little as possible.

The example I like to use is that if you're writing a story about elephants, you must know that it is physically impossible for an elephant to lift all four legs off the ground at the same time.  You should not have one character turn to another and say, "As you know, Raj, an elephant can never..."  But you need to know this fact because when you write that exciting scene in which your elephant is being chased by timber wolves, the moment it leaps effortlessly over a ravine, you're going to lose every elephant lover in your audience.

So, any gonna-be writers reading this take note:  Get your science right.  Explain only as much as the reader needs to know to get the story.  Research is like an iceberg -- nine-tenths of it goes unseen.

Oh, and if any of your writing buddies are midshipme n, be sure to pass this along.

Above:  Yes, they have bespoke Coke machines at the Academy.  I have no idea if the franchise is lucrative enough to justify the cost of the graphics or if it's just that somebody in the graphics department was feeling patriotic


Monday, February 24, 2014

Movie Legos


At the urging of my son, I went to see The Lego Movie yesterday.  And it was, yes, both witty and entertaining.  I do not regret going to see it.

But it was also . . . How shall I put this? . . . absolutely predictable.

Did anybody doubt for an instant that Emmet would get the girl?  That just before the good guys could save the day, they'd all be captured and it would look like the bad guys had triumphed?  That the villain would be reformed?  That father and son would be reconciled?

Oh yeah, spoiler alert.  As if you needed it.

I have no complaint about the movie.  The small children for whom it was made clearly loved it.  And that's good.  What grinches me is that every big-budget movie these days seems to be constructed on the same grid, with the same plot twists.  It's as if they were all given a huge tub of Movie Lego pieces and told, "Go to it!"

You can make all kinds of things with Legos.  But you can't make a working cyclotron.  Or a human liver.  Or a suit that you'd care to wear.  And with Movie Legos, you may be able to make many admirable entertainments.  But you couldn't make a Casablanca, a Citizen Kane, a Vertigo.  

I may have to swear off big budget movies for a while.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  See you when I get back!


Friday, February 21, 2014

Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown


I'm in print again and so I am happy. "Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown" appears in the current (April/May) issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, along with what look to be a very good array of fiction by writers I like.  Including fellow Philadelphian Fran Wilde, making her Asimov's debut.

I say "look to be" because it's a working day and I haven't read any of the other stories yet.  But I do note that Fran understands titles.  Her story is called "Like a Wasp to the Tongue."  Try getting that one out of your mind!

My own story is about a girl named Su-yin whose father is taken away by the Devil.  So of course she follows him to Hell to get him back.  Alas, not only is Hell an unpleasant place, but she's forced to go out on dates, as part of her own personal deal with the Devil.

Will Su-yin triumph?  This is a Michael Swanwick story!  Of course there'll be a happy ending.

And on a completely different subject . . .

Three of my friends are up for an Audie Award -- and in the same category, Multi-Voiced Performance.  Janis Ian is one of the performers in Ender's Game Alive, an adaptation of the Orson Scott Card science fiction classic, and Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman are up for The Fall of the Kings, an adaptation of Ellen's fantasy classic.

The fourth friend is Gardner Dozois, whose audio anthology Rip-Off! is up against the Ender's Game adaptation.

So . . . congratulations to all four.  I'm rooting for you all.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Librarians And Fans


My friend Kyle Cassidy recently did a photo essay titled This Is What A Librarian Looks Like.  It appeared in Slate and I admired it a lot.  Kyle likes to discover a subset of humanity (roller derby women, gun owners, whatever) and photograph them as they are.  I've watched him work.  He sets up the screen, tells his subjects to stand before it, and then dances back and forth, finding the right angle, before taking two photos.  He looks at them both, chooses the better, and shows it to the photographee.

Instant smiles.

Somehow -- and I've never been able to figure out how -- Kyle lets people pose themselves and then takes pictures that make them look both very cool and absolutely like themselves.  In the Middle Ages, he would have been burned as a witch.

Weirdly enough, his photos of librarians (click here to see) raised a firestorm of controversy.  He shouldn't have photographed librarians but their work!  By including various minorities, he made librarians seem more inclusive than they actually are!  He photographed some wearing glasses!


Kyle also did a photo essay of science fiction fans.  He set up his screen, photographed anybody who came by, and then put the results up on the Web.  (Click here to see.)  They look fabulous.  Every one of them.  While simultaneously looking like the extremely eccentric people that fans are.

Reaction?  Nothing but good.

If you'd told me that librarians, who are the guardians of civilization and the representatives of God's best thoughts on Earth would be crankier than science fiction fans (who are at best, let's face it -- and I got my picture taken then too, so I don't exempt myself  -- umm,"eccentric") I'd have laughed  in   your face.

Yet, inexplicably enough, they are.

I have no moral to end this post with.  But go and look at both groups of photos.  Don't the subjects look great?  This is  what human beings really look like if you look at them without preconceptions.  It turns out we're a pretty neat batch of people.

Above: Ingrid Abrams, a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library.  


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

This Glitterati Life: Celebrating Tom Purdom


At Boskone last Saturday, Marianne threw a book launch party for Lovers and Fighters, Starships and Dragons, the brilliant new collection of Tom Purdom's short fiction.  That's Tom up above, being admired.  Left to right:  LeeWeinstein, Danielle Freedman, Diane Weinstein, Tom.  Visible in the background:  Gail.

Below are some more shots taken at the party.  I'll label them when I find time.  Since this post was supposed to go up yesterday (but couldn't, because I was traveling), I thought it best to get this up right away.

Alexander Jablokov

    Brigid and Rob

Alyson Benoit and Barry Lee Dejasu

                                           Editor Darrell Schweitzer

   Fantastic Books Publisher Ian Strock and Cindy Lazzaro

                                 Our bartender, Rob


Monday, February 17, 2014

Greetings From Beautiful Buzzards Day

As always, I'm on the road again.  Today, after a brief snowshoeing session, I'll be driving x350 miles home.  So I'll blog when I get home.

Watch uh this space.

Friday, February 14, 2014

As Always...

As always, I'm on the road again.

Today I'm off to Boskone, which is the only science fiction convention I can imagine being worth going to Boson in February for.

PLEASE, the program people tell me, DO NOT just copy and paste this schedule to Facebook, your blog or web site without **removing** your co-panelists' private email addresses.  Because they might make changes.  

But what the Hell.  I'm a wild man.

Here's my schedule:

First Contact

Friday 21:00 - 21:50
Stories of a first contact with alien creatures capture our imagination like nothing else. Will the aliens be kind benefactors? Will they enslave the human race? Or will they just wipe us out and take over the planet? What works have most effectively portrayed the ideas, fears, and hopes that might arise when an alien race comes calling?
Allen M. Steele (M), E. C. Ambrose , Walter Jon Williams, Michael Swanwick

Killer Plagues

Saturday 11:00 - 11:50
A panel discussion about colds and viruses that don't turn people into zombies, but are just as deadly. What effect does science have on creating, curing, and tracking the viruses of today and those that may develop in the future? When the big civilization-killer comes, what can you expect when it hits? What symptoms should you be obsessively checking yourself out for? Will hand sanitizer help?
Joan Slonczewski (M), Jill Shultz  , Seanan McGuire LJ Cohen(, Michael Swanwick 

Alternate Voices

Saturday 13:00 - 13:50
Stories told through documents, letters, reports, or other nontraditional voices provide opportunities for narrative dissonance because of what is not (and cannot be) said. Panelists discuss the possibilities of these varied voices.
Stephen P. Kelner (M) , Scott H. Andrews, Walter Jon Williams , Michael Swanwick

What Is Storytelling For?

Saturday 15:00 - 15:50
Why tell stories? What is the purpose of narrative fiction in culture? Are the world and characters a massive counterfactual conditional and the narrative an extended consequence ... i.e., if things were thus, then this might happen? Or are we just telling lies?
Debra Doyle (M) Jo Walton, Ada Palmer  Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Michael Swanwick 

Kaffeeklatsche with Michael Swanwick

Sunday 12:00 - 12:50

And that leaves me tons of time for hanging out with real people.  If you're a real people, be sure to come up to me and say Hi.  I'm one of them too.

Above:  Keep the giraffes burning!  David Langford has NOT died in vain.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

[dream diary]

February 13, 2014

Once again, I was composing in my sleep.  This time, a song called:

You Must Have Lived (Somebody Else's Life in Vain)

Not a very good tune, alas, and after I'd hummed through it once or twice on awakening, I let it be forgotten without regrets.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Few Words About The Humanity Gifts Registry


Today, I have a guest post by Marianne Porter, who is not only my wife but the daughter of Mary Ann Porter, who died last month at age 103.

Here's what Marianne has to say:

My mother had decided years ago that she wanted her body to be donated for use in medical education. And when she died in early January, that's what we did.

In Pennsylvania, that process is handled by the Humanity Gifts Registry, and I am sorry to report that it is apparently staffed exclusively by insensitive, clot-eared dolts.

The evening after my mother's death, I spent considerable time on the phone with their answering service, who kept asking me questions about the resources of the funeral home handling the physical transfer. These were questions to which I could not possibly know the answers, and I asked why they hadn't asked the funeral director, when he called them about half an hour earlier. Evidently, they just weren't that organized.

Now, one month after my mother's death, I have a form letter from them, poorly written, poorly photocopied, and with a hand-written correction, informing me that they intend to cremate my mother's remains and bury them in their … mass grave? … potter's field? unless I notify them in writing (they note that they will NOT respond to telephone calls) within two months after the date of death, stating that I want the remains returned to me directly. Note that half of this window of opportunity has already passed. I rather hope the somewhat acid tone of my registered mail response will be noticed.

Please understand: I truly think that this, my mother's last gift to the society in which she lived and prospered for so many years, is a good and honorable action and I agree with it wholeheartedly.
But “clot-eared” is about the best I can say for the people managing it.

Above:  Yes, I've posted this photo of Mrs. Porter before.  But it never gets old.  And, really, this is the way we'd all like to remember her.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Jamieson Weighs In On Your Prose Style


I was browsing through Jamieson's Rhetoric last night, a book originally published in 1818, and was struck by the final paragraph.  Positively, because while it was meant to apply to the spoken word, it struck me as being perfectly applicable to the written word as well.  But also negatively because the final word was too strong.  Even assuming that people reacted far more strongly to mediocre art in the early nineteenth century than they do nowadays, it's an overstatement.

Also, I'm amazed that a serious rhetorician would end his book on a negative word.  It seems a rookie mistake to make.

Nevertheless, as I said, applicable:

Finally.  Guard against all affectation, which is the certain ruin of good delivery.  Let your manner, whatever it is, be your own; neither imitated from another nor assumed upon some imaginary model, which is unnatural to you.  Whatever is native, even though accompanied with several defects, yet is likely to please; because it has the appearance of coming from the heart.  Whereas a delivery, attended with several acquired graces and beauties, if it be not easy and free, if it betray the marks of art and affectation, never fails to disgust.

Amen, mostly.

Above:  The title page.  They don't make 'em like that anymore.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Librarians Hold Up Half The Sky


David Handler, who writes children's books under a certain citrus-y pseudonym, has teamed up with the American Library Association to create the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced With Adversity.  This annual award comes with a three thousand dollar prize, which pretty much any librarian could use, and is to be presented to a librarian who faces adversity and emerges with integrity and dignity intact.

This is such a good idea that, once done, one wonders why it didn't occur long ago.

Librarians are the guardians of civilization.  Bruce Coville once told me, in the wake of one of his delightful children's books being threatened with removal from a town library, that the censorious prefer to work in darkness and anonymity.  Once the story hits the papers, the evil is as good as undone.

And who contacts the papers?  Nine times out of ten it's the librarian.  So every opportunity we have to celebrate them should be seized with both hands.

You can read about the prize here.

Above:  The Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont.  I spent half my youth in that building.  A truly great public library.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Zhao Haihong and "Exuviation"


Lately, it seems, Lightspeed Science Fiction and Fantasy has been trying to win my heart.

First, they bought reprint rights to "The Armies of Elfland" co-written by Eileen Gunn and me.  "Armies" is a very strange story, chockablock with elves and ogres, all the unpleasant parts of which were written by Eileen.  (I mention this because everybody's going to assume they came from me.) 

Next, they coaxed an interview out of the two of us which is witty and interesting and in which, mirabile dictu, I get the last word.

Then I went to their site and discovered that they've reprinted Zhao Haihong's story, "Exuviation." This delighted me for several reasons.  Firstly because science fiction is a vibrant genre in China and the more of it that gets translated and seen in the West, the better.  Second, because Ms. Zhao is an extremely good writer (she's a six-time winner of the Galaxy Award, Chinese science fiction's greatest honor) and should get all the recognition possible.  Thirdly, because "Exuviation" is unlike anything you're likely to have seen this year.   Fourthly, because every bit of such exposure encourages more translations, not only of her work but of that by other Chinese science fiction writers.  And finally, because Haihong is a friend and I want all good things for her.

As if all this weren't enough, there's a fascinating interview with Zhao Haihong accompanying "Exuviation."  Here she is, on the story itself:

Every person may experience many changes in one’s life. You are willing to change yet still you may feel a bit uneasy about what may come after the change. Personally speaking, as a young writer who felt a bit bored about my old way of writing, I wanted to try something new and I was not afraid at that moment. But a good story should be the story of everyone, a story which could touch everyone. So I needed to reveal the other half of humanity: the other half that is afraid of what lies ahead. In the story I’ve created two characters, Tou and Gong, the special Cavers who should exuviate nine times in their life. But Cavers are not human beings, so the [aim of the] story is to gradually let in multiple meanings and directions in the process of writing; it’s not only a story of whether to change or not to change, but a story of the Other in the human world. Even the “authenticity” and “inauthenticity” of Heidegger’s Dasein could be introduced in the further understanding.

Zhao Haihong is currently teaching at Zhejiang Gongshang University and simultaneously working on her Ph.D. in Art History at China Academy of Art.  All while also raising a young daughter. So her writing career may be on hiatus for a few years.  But there's another of her stories which has been translated into English, "1923 -- a fantasy."  It appeared last year in a special science fiction issue of Renditions (put out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong) which is apparently to be reissued by Columbia University Press.  Anybody who is at all interested in Chinese fiction will want a copy.

Seriously.  It's a terrific collection.
You can read "Exuviation" here.  (It occurs to me that I should mention that the English translation was first published in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.  But this is the first time it has been made available on the Web.)

You can read the accompanying interview with Haihong Zhao here.

Or you can just go to Lightspeed and wander around by clicking here.

And I'll let you know when "The Armies of Elfland" goes online.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014



Pretty much out of nowhere, I got the following letter from Waylines, an online zine of speculative fiction:

Sorry to come out of left field like this, but I'm writing everyone I know to drum up some support for the Waylines Magazine's Year Two campaign. It has entered its last week and, unfortunately, we've got a long way to go. If you haven't heard of the magazine, Waylines is a pro-paying spec fiction magazine, and in our first year we published 14 stories. We're trying to fund Year Two via Kickstarter and are currently at 16% with 7 days left. So if you know anyone who might be interested (or might have some spare cash ) please tell them to check out the campaign on Kickstarter. 
So.  The rule of thumb here is that if you read Waylines and like it, you should kick in some money.  Otherwise . . . well, it'll just go away.

The same applies for all science fiction magazines, including the Big Three:  Asimov's, Analog, and F&SF.  If you like the kind of stuff they publish, you really ought to have a subscription.  Because otherwise . . . well, you've heard this before.

The Kickstarter campaign is here.

And the Waylines site is here.


Monday, February 3, 2014

An Everyday Word.: Quotidian


I am perhaps overfond of the word quotidian, which is derived from the Latin word for "daily." It means, simply enough, everyday or ordinary.  But it's such a lovely, glittery word that it makes the commonplace sound extraordinary.

As it is.

Above is a quotidian miracle, the like of which is witnessed every day by astronauts in the International Space Station.  Think of it the next time somebody tries to tell you that the space program is dead.