Monday, March 31, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 10: As Above, So Below


At last, Marianne and I reached Boston.  Driving over the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (also known as the Harvard Bridge), we had the opportunity to view the smoot marks originally created as a pointless student prank -- and probably the most famous such hack ever -- by (of course) frat boys from (where else?) the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In October 1958, members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity had pledge Oliver R. Smoot lie down at one end of the bridge, marked his length with a line of paint, then had him lie down again at the line over and over again, to ultimately determine that the bridge was exactly 364.4 smoots long.  There have surely been wittier pranks in the 66 years since, but this one caught the public imagination much as The Blob is celebrated long after better movies were forgotten.  Exactly why will always be a matter of conjecture.  But the smoot-marks are repainted every year and will doubtless continue to be repainted far into the foreseeable future.

Not far from the bridge we found the MIT Museum, where we met up with fantasist Greer Gilman, author of several core works of fantasy including the seminal novel Moonwise and, most recently, the Small Beer Press chapbook Cry Murder in a Small Voice in which playwright Ben Jonson turns detective (and which, rather offhandedly, refutes the Oxfordians centuries before they appear). Together we three spent rather a lot of time before the collection of rare and historic slide rules, sharing reminiscences, before examining the other technology-related displays, including an informative series of student-made videos explaining how the Internet operates and why it's unlikely to ever do so satisfactorily (spoiler alert: no adult supervision).  It's a small museum, but an engaging one.

On the second floor were some very choice robotics exhibits, and some very fine technology-based artworks.  My favorites were Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculptures which, while limited to classical mechanics, were both witty and engaging.  You can find three representative film clips here.

Less successful, alas, was the gallery of holographic art.  A few years ago at the Chicago Worldcon, a writer friend told me he had just removed a 3-D picture from a new story because he'd realized that it was "fossil science fiction."  Back in the 1960s, when holograms were invented, he explained, everybody assumed that the photographs and art of the future would be holographic.  Now, it looks like they were a fad of the times and one that's rapidly fading into the past.  "I was only including it because that's the sort of thing that used to be in science fiction and it's never really been purged.  Hovercraft are another example of something that makes your story look instantly dated.  And if you have a holograph of a hovercraft in your story, you've really go a problem."

The gallery was a fascinating glimpse back at a time when holography was going to be important someday.  But that's all it was.

Down the block, we had a late lunch at Miracle of Science, a foodery so hip that it doesn't have a menu -- just a chalkboard in the shape of the periodic table, with the burgers and fajitas organized according to spurious principles of foodishness.  There discussed Greer's upcoming publications and other matters of personal interest.

The afternoon was spent, at Greer's suggestion, at the Harvard Museum of Science & Culture, mostly
in their Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.  Perhaps the flashiest of which was the Grand Orery begun by Joseph Pope in 1776 and finally finished in 1785. Twelve-sided, domed, and featuring bronze figures of Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Bowdoin (then governor of Massachusetts) that were cast by Paul Revere, it's always been an almost pornographically prestigious piece of luxury goods.

Here's part of the museum description:

This gear-driven model of the solar system is made of mahogany and brass and is operated by hand-crank. The planets--Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn--are included with their known satellites. The planets revolve on their axes, the moons revolve around the planets, and each planetary system revolves around the sun at relative speeds. The Earth's system also shows the rotation of the lunar node, represented by a small ivory ball on a stick... Half-way through the project, Uranus was discovered (in 1781). Pope did not include this new planet.
The rest of the collection is chockablock full of stuff that would drive your science-illiterate aunt mad with boredom, but which we three found endlessly fascinating -- including the control console from Harvard's cyclotron, which was ripped out on its final day of use (appropriately enough in 2001) and put on display, taped-up cartoons and all.

There was a special display of historically significant autopsy-related tools and illustrations in a separate room.  Ordinarily, the most amusing part of going to see such a display is my company, since I start out chipper and upbeat and by slow degrees turn a fetching shade of green.  But this time, it was the plaster death-cast of the head of notorious "resurrection man" William Burke, carefully shaved bald as a billiard ball, because of Greer's crying out as she saw it, "But Burke has no hair!"

[If you don't get the joke, two minutes on Google will resolve your confusion.]

Finally, we left, weary from our travels, but happy, enlightened, and filled with a sense of the geekish wonder of the modern world.  On the way out we passed the Mark I computer.  Which was the use-name for the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, a general purpose electro-mechanical computer employed for military purposes in the waning days of World War II.

As it was in the beginning, so it shall be at the end.  I began this journey in Philadelphia with a visit to the first large-scale electronic computer, at the University of Pennsylvania.  Now I ended it with a visit to one of the last large-scale electro-mechanical computers.  The one was the beginning of an industry and an utterly changed world.  The other was the culmination of mechanical computing, a dinosaur unaware that the rug was about to be pulled out from under its raison d'etre.

And so off to the home of friends for conversation and food and then sleep and then, ultimately, the long journey home.

Above:  The Mark I.  It continued in use until 1959.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 9: The White Hot Heart of American Literary Heritage


Two literary households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Massachusetts, where we lay our scene...

North we drove to witch-haunted Salem.  Here we sought out the childhood home of legendary editor and brilliant writer Gardner Dozois.  That's it up above,  at 18 Roslyn Street.  Here's Gardner reminiscing, after I posted the picture on Facebook:

The amazing thing is, it looks exactly the same as it did when I was a little kid in the '50s; it's even the same color. The neighborhood doesn't seem to have changed much either. We lived on the top floor, and it was sitting just inside that dormer window that's visible up there, which was the living room, with dusty sunlight coming in through that window, that I learned to read and read my first word, which, perhaps appropriately, was "No."

Which is indeed useful word for a future editor to have mastered early.  But while he is likely to be best and deservedly remembered for his 19 years as Asimov's, I value Gardner's fiction more.  Back in the day, whenever Gardner had a party at his old apartment, Marianne would lurk by the table containing dozens -- or so it seemed -- of Hugo Awards for Best Editor.  They were a terribly vulgar sight, like a display in a sex shop.  But in among them, gleaming with virginal innocence were his two Nebulas for Best Short Fiction.  Sooner or later, some young New York editorial type would say, "I didn't know Gardner was writer."

Then Marianne would smile and say, "Oh, yes.  He's a much better writer than he is an editor.

Northward, ever northward we drove, to Gloucester where Virginia Lee Burton created her famous children's books and also her famous fabric prints.  Marianne and I had been married several years before we chanced to find out that as children we had each particularly loved her book Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel.  I loved it because my name was Mike, just like the protagonist, and Marianne because the steam shovel's name was Marianne, just like her.

Some marriages are fated.

There are no public sites associated with Ms Burton today (her house is privately owned), but after quietly scoping out her old stomping grounds, Marianne and I drove west and south to Concord (properly pronounced, our New England friends tell us, "conquered"), where we found Walden Pond.

Preserving a site dedicated to simplicity and lack of ostentation as a tourist attraction inevitably makes it a magnet for irony.  Parking at the site costs five dollars and the automated machine collecting the toll rejected my increasingly heated attempts to pay with first one credit card and then another.  Eventually, I scraped together enough bills that the finicky device would accept and dropped by the information center.  There I found a startling array of various editions of Walden, one for every purse, and some of them pricey indeed.  So I bought the cut-price Dover paperback, cut through the parking lot, took a perfunctory look at the recreated hut (complete with a stand for the guest book), and when there was a break in the traffic hurried across the road to the pond.

Thoreau is known today for his anti-capitalist politics and for at least temporarily living the simple life he espoused.  But what makes him geekworthy is that all the time he was at Walden Pond, he was practicing science, recording temperatures, and mapping the depth of the pond.  For all that the literary establishment tries to make him respectable, he was one of us.

Down the road a way, we came at last to the second literary house of the day -- the Old Manse.  Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather built the house, whose lands abutted the Old North Bridge, where the Shot Heard 'Round the World was fired, kicking off the American Revolution.  Emerson grandpere witnessed the event from his fields.  Two generations later, his grandson arranged for Nathaniel Hawthorne and his young bride to rent it.  Emerson event sent Thoreau over to plant a garden for them, so they'd have flowers and vegetables awaiting them when they arrived.

There, the newlyweds scratched love-notes to each other on the windows and Nat wrote a fair amount of fantasy ("Young Goodman Brown") and science fiction ("Rappaccini's Daughter") there.  The taint of genre runs deep in American literature, however hard the guardians of decency try to deny it.

Immediately above, the Old Manse.  A holy spot for those of us who value America's contribution to world literature.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 8: The Day of Two Graves


How cool is this?  I spent the morning at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, writing.  The truth be told, I paid for the privilege.  But the fee was reasonable  enough and it was, apparently, the first time the trustees had okayed such a thing.  There were thirteen of us, nine women and four men -- this tells us something, though I don't know what -- and all of us were pretty obviously introverts.  Not a lot of conversation, but some pretty serious scribbling and tapping.

The event took part in Mark Twain's library, which was, as you might expect, pretty opulent.  I got perhaps a half-dozen pieces of flash fiction written and (via smartphone) a good start on an interview with an appropriate subject.  More on both, as they mature.

Then Marianne picked me up and we jaunted over to Dinosaur State Park.  There aren't a lot of dinosaur fossils in New England and most of what have been found there are trace fossils -- footprints, mostly.  Which was the case here.  The State of Connecticut was digging the foundation for a state building here, when a construction worker turned over a slab of rock and found dino footprints.  Now, most of those found have been reburied, but a really nifty building was built over some of the better overlapping tracks and lights and other enhancements put in to help the casual viewer make sense of them.

Then off to Exeter, Rhode Island, where we sought out the grave of the vampire Mercy Brown.  She was nothing of the sort, of course.  But in the late nineteenth century, a local family died off one by one of consumption, arousing fears that a vampire was feeding upon them.  The graves of another family were opened and the body of Mercy Brown, dead at age 19, was suspiciously fresh.  (She'd died not long before the winter set in).  So they cut out her heart, burned it, and fed the ashes in a glass of water, to the last surviving member of the consumptive family.  Then they reinterred Ms Brown.  Who turned out not to be a vampire after all, for her heart-ash did nothing to prevent the man from dying two months later.

It is speculated that Bram Stoker may have read accounts of the incident in the newspaper shortly before he wrote Dracula.  But it is certain that H. P. Lovecraft knew the story, for he based "The Shunned House" on it.

The grave is clearly the most visited in the cemetery.  There were pennies laid atop the stone and pebbles at its feet.  People left offerings:  a chain, an Army patch, a toenail clipper, and the like.  And the earth before the grave was grassless and convex.  More on which in a sec.

Our next stop, appropriately enough, was Providence, where Poe and Lovecraft both spent time in the cemetery (where, almost inexplicably, he did not write The Raven) and where Lovecraft lived in and/or wrote about a bewildering array of buildings.  I followed an itinerary which Darrell Schweitzer provided for me (and thoughtfully annotated), before dashing off to Swan Point Cemetery, where Lovecraft was buried.  I was immediately struck by the fact that Lovecraft's name was engraved upon his parents' stately obelisk.  So, while he didn't have a stone of his own, he wasn't exactly lying in an unmarked grave.  Still, it was nice of his fans to chip in for a small personal stone.

At this grave too, people left offerings:  coins, seashells, a bluebird's feather.  Darrell tells me that the cemetery regularly clears away things left there.  He also said some of them will dig up some of the dirt over the grave, apparently for magical purposes.  Which cast a dark light on the grave of the unfortunate Mercy Brown.  There's also a story that an attempt was made to dig up Lovecraft's body, after which it was reburied to one side of the stone -- so it might not even be where it's purported to lie.

On which somber note, we drove off to Massachusetts, where friends offered us place for the night.  And so to bed.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 7: From Humbug to the Mesozoic


From the Empire State, Marianne and I drove eastward, into Connecticut.  Bridgeport was home to Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine and Harvey Hubbell, the inventor of (among other things) the electric plug and the pull-chain light socket.  But its best-known citizen was the showman P. T. Barnum.

Barnum was the self-styled "King of Humbugs," and with good reason.  He perpetuated and made good money off of such frauds as the Fiji Mermaid and the Cardiff Giant.  But aside from such deceits, he was famous for giving the public good weight for their money.  His shows and museums were chock-full of wonders, marvels, and things that people wanted to see.

So it's particularly sad that the Barnum Museum is still closed for repairs from damage caused by a tornado several years ago.  I pressed my nose to the glass, marveled at the building's external decorations, and with a sigh moved on.

The day picked up, however, some miles down the interstate, Marianne spotted a sign for the Pez Information Center.  Which is something we'd passed by many times over the decades en route to someplace else and never made the detour to.  This time, we did -- and discovered that the spirit of P. T. Barnum is alive!  Because the Center is that wet dream of capitalism, a gift shop that charges admission.

The admission was not expensive, however, and the PIC is in a low-key kind of way a hoot.  There are a number of educational displays and a window overlooking a section of factory where, weekdays, Pez candies are made.  But the chief attractions are the displays of classic Pez dispensers:  Astronauts, American presidents, Halloween creatures, pretty much every Disney character ever put to film, and much, much more.  It's a strangely charming experience to pause for half an hour to admire something as ephemeral and unimportant as a candy dispenser.

On the way out, I was tempted to buy the set of Pez dispensers immoralizing the cast of The Lord of the Rings.  But I quickly came to my senses and a few minutes later was on my way to New Haven and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.  The Peabody is not a particularly large museum but it has a world-class collection and some of the most amazing fossils you'll ever have the pleasure to gawk at.  Many of them were collected by legendary paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, today remembered almost as much for his fierce rivalry -- known as the "Bone Wars" -- with Edward Drinker Cope.

I could go on for hours about the wonders of the Peabody.  But its crown jewel may well be the single most influential piece of scientific illustration ever, Rudolph Zallinger's 110 foot long mural, The Age of Reptiles.  The mural covers all of the Mesozoic with plants and creatures from the earliest era, the Triassic, at the right-hand side under a dawn sky, the Jurassic in the center, and the Cretaceous at the left in the gathering dusk.  A tremendous amount of information is encoded into the mural -- it took four and a half years to create -- and though some of the science has been superseded, that hardly matters.

What matters is that the mural created more scientists than will ever be tallied up.  In the early 1950s, it was reproduced in Life magazine as a fold-out and millions of children were exposed to a vivid, engrossing vision of the prehistoric past at its most glamorous.  Many, many paleontologists have testified that it was responsible for their choice of careers.  Marianne tells me that it made her a scientist.  And I'm sure it had a good deal to do with me becoming a science fiction writer.  The importance of that single work of art cannot be exaggerated.

Years ago, I helped Robert Walters and Tess Kissinger put up the paleoart show at Dinofest.  Among the astonishing paintings displayed there was the seven-foot-long cartoon for the mural.  I was one of several people who carried the painting in, laid it down on the ground, and then undid the protective wrappings it had been shipped in.  When it was revealed, we all knelt before it and bent down to examine its astonishing detail.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 6: Our Lady of Spiders


Am I the only person to take vacations midway through a trip?  After running ourselves ragged the first few days, Marianne and I needed a rest.  So for the second day running, we took it easy.

On this day, taking it easy meant going to Dia: Beacon, which is a museum of Large and Difficult Art.  How large?  The building used to be a factory and the walk from one end of a piece to the other can be exhausting.  How difficult?  Every time I've visited D:B, I've seen numerous young and seriously artistic people (you can tell them by their leather jackets, black lipstick, berets, etc., etc., etc.) standing staring and staring and staring at a particular work of art, trying to get it with all of their might.  I do not sneer at them.  I spend a significant portion of my time there doing exactly the same thing.

People who have devoted their lives to this stuff believe these works to be important.  I am not going to assume that I know better without at least making the attempt.

A good example of what passes here for an easily accessible work might be Robert Smithson's (he's the guy who made Spiral Jetty) piece, Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis).  Which is a big pile of shards of broken glass in the middle of the floor.  I look at it and I imagine a story titled "The Crystal Continent."  I think that maybe some day I'll write a story merging its high-art qualities with pulp-art plotting. 

There's also a Joseph Beuys piece called Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten which I hope someday to turn into a Mongolian Wizard story.  (Yes, yes, I know.)  Every time I see it, I fill several pages of my notebook with scribbled observations.  There's really something there.

But there's also Agnes Martin (who was the Google Doodle lady yesterday) whose works remain more subtle than me, or Dan Flavin's arrangements of fluorescent tubes, which to this day, I swear, look to me like they'd make nice commercial lighting fixtures in nondescript corporate settings.  I remind myself that if their art were easy to get they wouldn't be in Dia: Beacon.

But, as always, the highlight of this museum is Louise Bourgeois's oeuvre.  Her early works are drenched in sex, body-awarness, and gender issues.  Tough-minded, fearless, abstract gender issues.  I've spent many hours looking at her work and not a minute of that time was wasted.

Bourgeois has an entire floor to herself and deserves it.  Her stuff makes the rest of the museum look not quite second-rate but almost not-first-rate. 

And when you follow her galleries to their logical end, you'll find . . .Crouching Spider.

Late in life, Bourgeois made a series of enormous metal spiders -- things so large you could walk under them, with needle-tipped legs.  Mythic, Jungian objects.  Sculptures that were simultaneously instantly accessible, terrifying creatures from the id, and enormously desirable.  A perfect capstone to a great career.

They were, she explained, an homage to her mother.

Crouching Spider fills a factory room.  You have to duck under her legs to see her properly.  And Marianne did so, standing back to the brick factory wall with all of the spider before her and said, "Mother will protect me."

High art.  Instantly accessible.  Spend a day in Dia: Beacon and you'll come to the same conclusion I have:  Out of all these major artists, Louise Bourgeois wins hands down.

No competition.

No kidding.

But don't take my word for it.  Go see for yourself.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 5: A Visit to Robert Sheckley


Briefly, in mid-adventure, Marianne and I took a break from our rather intensive journeying at my sister's and brother-in-law's house, to collapse, recover, and do some laundry.  But while in the Woodstock area we took a side-jaunt to visit the grave of Robert Sheckley.

Eight years ago, on a dark and bitterly cold day I drove from Philadelphia to Kingston, NY, to attend Sheckley's funeral.  It was an extraordinary event.  Three of his ex-wives were in attendance and a fourth sent her regrets that she was unable to make the trip.  His daughter, noted writer Alisa Kwitney gave a loving and moving memorial that began with the words "Robert Sheckley was a terrible father."  Barry Malzberg made an extempore speech that was one of the best things I've ever heard, a genuine work of literary art.

I got up then and said a few words on behalf of the Russian people.  This may seem a little cheeky of me, but I knew his readers there would want to be represented.  Sheckley -- and his clear-eyed, razor-edged satiric humor -- were big as big in that part of the world.  When he collapsed in Kiev, months before his death, it was front-page news in Pravda.

Some years before -- and I was lucky enough to be able to tell the man this in person -- I was guest of honor at Aelita, Russia's oldest SF convention, in Ekaterinburg.  This was a year after Robert Sheckley was goh.  During the press conference, organizer Boris Dolingo was asked how the attendance numbers compared to the previous year's.  Looking directly into the television cameras, he said, "Swanwick is a writer.  Sheckley is a god."

Bob liked hearing that.  And at his funeral, his family were glad as well.

Sheckley is buried in the Artists Cemetery in Woodstock.  Not to be anticlimactic, but when Marianne and I got there we found that half the graves were buried under snow.  Sheckley's, a flat stone with a galaxy engraved on it, was among those unviewable.

No matter.  I had my memories.  I was there.  And in a sense, through me, so were all his many friends, fans, and readers.

On that same day I learned that my old friend Lucius Shepard had died.  I would be lying to you if I said that mortality wasn't heavy on my mind.  But they left behind their books.  Any time we want to revisit them, we can.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Geek Highways Day 4: From Asimov's to the Civil War


After a leisurely morning in Brooklyn, chatting with friends, Marianne and I drove to Manhattan to visit the offices of Asimov's and Analog.  Their physical locale has changed several times over the decades, but taken together the two magazines have been the heart of science fiction for most of its existence.

We had lunch with Asimov's editor Sheila Williams and editorial assistant Emily Hockaday and had a terrific time talking literature and science.  "Did you come up with ideas for new stories?" Sheila asked me when we were done.

"Of course I did," I lied.  Making a mental note to come up with a spiel connecting the next story I submit to her with this pleasant encounter.

Then it was off on the broad highways of New York State up the Hudson River Valley to Irvington, the home of Washington Irving, the first American to become an internationally famous literary figure.  His two chief accomplishments were the startlingly original fantasy story, "Rip Van Winkle," and the anti-fantasy "Sleepy Hollow," which is on my short list of perfectly-written short stories.

Close by is Sleepy Hollow, with the Old Dutch Church which was described in the story, and a modern bridge which may well be at the same site as the bridge where the climactic scene occurs.  Or maybe not.  It's not really known.  But of course we want to believe.

Up above the church is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Washington Irving is buried.  As are Samuel Gompers under an appropriately utilitarian gravestone and Andrew Carnegie, the original for Scrooge McDuck, who had a relatively modest Celtic sun cross, considering his great wealth, in a corner of the graveyard which had been brilliantly landscaped to make his final resting place seem private.

Leona Helmsley is also buried there.  I considered looking up her mausoleum to make sure she was still dead. But since I didn't have a wooden stake or any garlic, I figured I wasn't in a position to do anything if she weren't and so moved on down the road through Ossining, best known for Sing Sing Penitentiary, but also the home of John Lorimer Worden, who commanded the Monitor in the Civil War.

And then onward, toward new adventures and new discoveries.

And I'm in e-print again!

"Armies of Elfland," a story I co-wrote with Eileen Gunn, has just been re-e-printed at Lightspeed.  It's  a tale of magic, love, and heroism that begins with a horrific act of genocide and swiftly gets much, much grimmer.  I think it's safe to say you won't be able to predict the plot twist of this baby.  That's because Eileen and I were each doing our best to confound the other while we were writing it.

You can find the story here.

And you can read the dual interview wherein Eileen and I reveal the demented method by which we wrote this puppy here.  Kids!  Don't try this at home. 
Above:  A selection of the Hugos that John W. Campbell won over the decades, preserved in the Asimov's/Analog offices.  The one second from the right -- not the gold one but the little one in front of it -- was created by Jack McKnight the first year the awards were issued, during the convention itself.  (The person responsible for having the Hugos made had failed to do so.)  To his dying day Jack, who missed the Worldcon as a result, referred to them as "Those damned Hugos." 

Thursday, March 20, 2014



I'm heartbroken to have to share this with you.  Lucius Shepard is dead.

Lucius was a good friend and a hell of a great writer.  His curse -- and the reason that he wasn't a hundred times better known -- is that he had a special brilliance for short stories and novellas but found it almost impossible to work at novel length.  It's a brutal business trying to earn enough money to keep oneself alive writing only short fiction and the occasional article.  But through a combination of hard work, prolific output, and artistic brilliance, Lucius managed to do so.  I stand in awe of that.

There must be a thousand stories out there about Lucius.  He was a heavy drinker and, back in the day, a legendary user of drugs.  You only had to meet him once to know that he was haunted by personal demons, though I never did learn what they were.  Yet he had a great, though dark, sense of humor, and was a mesmerizing storyteller.  And he had a kind streak.  I remember him urging me to consider teaching at Clarion West:  "It's a heartwarming experience, Michael, helping these young writers.  It makes you feel like Mr. Chips."

But there was also that darkness.  I was in a bar drinking with Lucius once when a friend expressed her wish that she knew what came after death.  Lucius turned around and stared at her in astonishment.  "You want to know happens?  They dig a hole, they dump you in, and then they shovel dirt over you.  End of story.  Reincarnation?  Think worms."  You probably had to be there, but take my word for it, it was a hilarious performance, delivered with the emphasis and timing of a great actor, and self-mocking to boot.  But it was also a good example of how clearly and steadily he looked at those aspects of existence he found appalling.

Lucius was a major American writer.  He leaves behind a large and distinguished body of work.  My own personal favorite is The Dragon Griaule but others will favor Live During Wartime or The Golden or . . .

But I'll stop here.  Not because there isn't a lot more to be said but because it depresses the hell out of me to have to say it.  Instead, I'll tell a minor story of my own:  Years ago, I was in the West Village with Marianne in the White Horse Tavern, a place best known for being Dylan Thomas's favorite NYC drinking spot.  Marianne's wine and my whiskey arrived and I raised my glass in a toast:  "Here's to a very great writer who used to drink here . . . Lucius Shepard!  'Fifteen grams, I believe that's a record.'"

Go in peace, compadre.  We're all the richer for your life and the poorer for your loss.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 3: From Poe to St. Patrick

I began Monday by going to 84th and Broadway, where Edgar Alan Poe wrote "The Raven."  One of my particular hobbies is visiting every site where Poe wrote that poem.  I've been to the sacred site where this happened in Richmond, in Baltimore (well, one of them), in Philadelphia (the Poe House), in Wayne, PA (the General Wayne Inn, which following the murder of one owner by the other is now a synagogue), and several other places as well. I've got somewhere between a dozen and thirty-two more sites to go before my quest is done.

(In every one of those locations save the Poe House -- so far as I can tell -- Poe also scratched his initials.  It was one of his particular hobbies.)

From there, Marianne and I went to the Chelsea Hotel.  Forget Sid and Nancy, forget Bob Dylan, forget the rest of them.  Here it was that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. 

Next came the Flatiron Building, which was the first skyscraper in the world and is currently the home of Tor Books.  We talked serious literature and hot new writers with old friend and editor Claire Eddy.  Alas, publishing legend Tom Doherty was off on an agent lunch and so I didn't get to see him.

From whence we went off to 45th and Madison to the Roosevelt Hotel where Hugo Gernsback had his radio-television station, the second in the world.  Gernsback was an immigrant, a visionary, and a crook. He stiffed his writers while giving himself a salary of a million dollars a year, back when that was serious money.  He was living the American Dream while denying it to others.  Yet almost by accident, he created science fiction. Amazing Stories was responsible for turning science fiction (a term he created after his earlier and clunkier coinage "scientifiction") into a genre separate from general fiction.  And quite by accident his practice of including the addresses of those who wrote to his magazine with their letters made it possible for those correspondents to write directly to one another, thus creating sf fandom.

By chance, we arrived at the site of Gernsback's high-water mark as the St. Patrick's Day parade was winding down.  Two bands went by and then the final clutch of local Irish celebrities, sashes across chests, looking important and disgruntled.  A woman who had fallen behind the rest ran swiftly after them on heels so high I expected her to to pitch forward into the pavement.  But she did not, her fellow celebrities smiled to see her join them, and Marianne and I went back to Brooklyn, exhausted and happy.


Geek Highway, Day 2: Aliens From What to Who


I'm running a little behind on my blog posts, but soonsoonsoon I promise I'll be all caught up.  Meanwhile here's Sunday's Geek Highways report:

Angling south and west through parts of New Jersey that have no large roads, past small houses hidden behind a narrow scrim of trees and blue collar businesses with half a dozen employees each, we come to Grover's Mill.  Here on the night before Halloween, 1928, hostile Martians attacked the Earth.  Or so Orson Welles reported in his radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds.  Which caused a panic unlike any seen before, alerted the world to the dangers of mass media, and triggered Congrssional hearings which took Welles' fanciest footwork to emerge from unscathed.

From there to Edison, the site of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratories.  These are long gone, but the Edison Tower has take n their place, topped by a lightbulb- shaped dome.  Today it's covered in scaffolding, being restored.  "They've been turning this into a park since 1937" says a man we meet there, who has brought his grandchildren here to play with their dogs.

Onto the Garden State expressway to West Orange for what turns out to be Geek Paradise -- the the Thomas Edison National Historical Park.  Here, preserved, are TAE's improved labs, contains the original chemistry lab, heavy metal shop, precision machining shop, and much else as well.  Edison's library office is a multi-story dream of affluence and achievement.  But he much preferred his small and tidy private laboratory.

Time growing late, Marianne and I hurried on to Brooklyn, there to search out the site of the Asimov Candy Store where, at age 9, Asimov convinced his father to allow him to read the science fiction magazines they sold and sealed his fate forever.  It is now an empty lot and it had to wonder if any of the neighbors are aware of its connection to literary history.

Finally, we dropped by the Way Station, everybody's favorite tardis bar.  Proprietor Andy Heidel, who was formerly in publishing, explained that just before it opened, they realized the entrance to the toilet was right by the bar.  So, to disguise that fact, they put in the front of a police call box before it.  Thus making the bar a geek destination.

One martini later, our day was done and we went off to stay with friends David and Francie.

Above:  The vacant lot where Asimov became a writer gonnabe.  May the spirit of the place bless both you and me.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Geek Highways, Day 1: From the Blob to the Big Bang


We left Philadelphia before dawn.  Marianne and I drove west on the Schuylkill and then through a series of sleeping bedroom communities, nestled into the wooded hills to the northwest of the city, out to Downingtown.  Along the way we passed Merion where, at the General Wayne Inn, Edgar Alan Poe scratched his initials into a windowsill and wrote "The Raven" -- two activities of which, by testimony of all the places claiming the honor, he was inordinately fond.

We stopped for breakfast at the Downingtown Diner, where parts of the 1950s sci-fi classic The Blob were filmed.  Though the current diner is a replacement for the original which... well, nobody seems perfectly sure what happened to it.  It's gone, anyway, and only the basement is the same as in the movie.  The waitstaff there were cheerful and  genuinely friendly.  Asked if they got a lot of tourists, our waitress said, "More or less.  Some more than others.  Some are all 'Oh, this is so exciting!' and 'Can we see the basement?'  No, they can't."

I ordered the Blob of a Mess (scrambled eggs mixed with hash browns, green peppers, and chopped ham, covered with cheese) with toast, coffee, and juice.

Our next stop was Phoenixville, where the Blob attacked a movie theatre full of teenagers.  Once a year, the Colonial Theatre has a Blobfest whose events include a Run Out from the main door of the theater, a recreation of what may be the least convincing shot of the entire movie.  It always sells out fast.

The theater has a respectable history.  It opened in 1903 as a vaudeville house and such entertainers as Harry Houdini and Mary Pickford performed there.  In 1903 it showed its first silent movie, and in 1928 its first talkie, The Jazz Singer.  Coming soon, according to the marquee, is the classic horror cheesefest, The Tingler.

From Phoenixville, we drove back through Philadelphia and across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Haddonfield, New Jersey, where the first near-complete dinosaur skeleton was discovered.  Today, the farm where Edward Drinker Cope spent ten very productive years has disappeared under a genteel residential neighborhood.  But traces of it -- the farmhouse down by the pond, a tenant house set kitty-corner from the current street -- remain to be detected by the discerning eye.  There is a memorial plaque by the stream and a mile away in the historic part of town, a life-sized bronze Hadrosaurus foulkii by sculptor John Gionotti.

After a long trek through deepest, darkest, mallest New Jersey, the business parks and fields of Phragmites give way to the Pine Barrens.  There we search out the Carranza memorial, funded by the small contributions of countless Mexican schoolchildren.  Emilio Carranza, "the Lindbergh of Mexico," died in a crash there in 1928 while on a good will mission to New York City.  He was only twenty-three.

Then it was time for lunch.  We took a detour into Roadside America and ate at Mighty Joe's Gas Grill & Deli, which has an 18-foot high fiberglass gorilla outside, clearly modeled on Mighty Joe Young and bought years ago from an earlier roadside attraction.  Sadly, the owners have turned it into a memorial for a dead son, a bodybuilder who died young and had been nicknamed "Mighty Joe."

From Shamong, then, to Lakehurst.  The visitors center was closed and it was not possible to get into the dirigible hangar but we could see it from the road, and the sky as well -- the brave blue sky in which the Hindenberg burned, putting an end to the Age of Airships for all but a very small number of lighter-than-air craft and the imaginations of children and dreamers everywhere.

Our last stop was Holmdel, where after a great deal of wandering about, we finally found the Holmdel Horn, one of the great obscurities of science history.  The Horn was a directional antenna built to support NASA's Echo Satellites.  Here, in the early 1960s, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson were studying emissions from the Milky Way and found themselves unable to account for small but persistent background "static."  After all other possibilities had been eliminated -- they even spent hours clearing out nesting pigeons from the Horn and cleaning away their droppings -- they came to the realization that they were listening to the background radiation left over from the Big Bang.

This was one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century and possibly of all time.  It established that our universe was born -- and that someday it will die.

The Holmdel Horn is, alas, on Alcatel-Lucent (what used to be Bell Labs) property and can only be glimpsed from a distance.  But it is an important relic of science.  Just glimpsing it was privilege enough.

Above:  I'll insert photos into these entries as soon as I can find a fix for a hole in my clutch of electronic communications devices.  It may take a few days.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Geek Highways: ENIAC


Tomorrow I leave at dawn in search of Geek America.  Not that I couldn't do that in the city that's come to be known as Geekadelphia.  Philadelphia has more than its share of literary and scientific landmarks.  Heck, our secular saint is Ben Franklin, the first American scientist to gain international renown.

But if I didn't leave, it wouldn't be a road trip, and so off I go.

Before going, however, I made a symbolic trip to Moore Hall in the University of Pennsylvania, where four of the original forty panels comprising ENIAC are on permanent display.  ENIAC was the first large-scale general purpose electronic computer.  It's the "general purpose" part that's most important -- it was the first electronic computer that could be put to any task that its programmers desired.  It could be programmed by physically rewiring its components.  A clunky task by today's standards but one that made possible mathematical calculations that simply could not be performed before then.

Back when I worked at the Franklin Institute Research Laboratory as a lowly information analyst, one of my bosses kept a box of vacuum tubes from ENIAC under his desk.  How I wished I owned one!  But of course simply owning one would have meant nothing.  It's having a reason for owning one that means all.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Geek Highways: Almost Ready


The Geek Highways expedition is only two days away!  And already, Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees has figured out that something is up.  So she's occupying the suitcase and glaring at us in disapproval.

Cats are so conservative.

And . . .

Today's blog is just a place-holder to let you know that Friday's will be put up sometime in the afternoon.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Geek Highways: Organizing the Electronics


Marianne and I assembled all the electronic devices we plan to bring along on the Geek Highways expedition.  On the one hand, rather a lot.  On the other, fewer than I expected we'd take.

In my old age, I confidently expect to have the following conversation:

Young Person:  Why did you take so much stuff with you?

Old Me:  Well, we planned to take lots of pictures, maybe a movie or three, read some ebooks...

Young Person:  Why didn't you just use your iRing for all that?

YP has a good point, I'll confess.  Why does the future always take so long to get here?


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Geek Highways: Starting to Pack


Saturday is coming!  So Marianne and I went through the go bag yesterday to make sure we had everything.  The go bag is kept by the back door, ready to be slung into the car on a minute's notice and contains everything you might suddenly discover you need when you're at a Motel 6 in the middle of nowhere.  A corkscrew, for example, a flashlight, or an adequate set of eating utensils.

The absolute most essential?  Spices.  You'd be amazed how a little hot sauce can perk up a boring motel breakfast.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Geek Highways


I'm hitting the road again, off on the Geek American Road Trip.  Saturday morning I set out on a two week road trip from Philadelphia to Boston -- and it will be a close thing if I can make it in that time.

Why?  Because I am a writer of science fiction and fantasy and I am looking for my roots.  I'll be searching out sites of  both literary and scientific significance.  And I'll be not only blogging about it but tweeting as well.

Those who wish to follow our adventure (Marianne is coming along as my camerawoman and tech crew) can do so by following @michaelswanwick on Twitter.  Or look for #geekhighways.  I'll also be posting here pretty much every day.

This will, I hope, be very cool.  Keep your fingers crossed for me.

And keep watching the skies.

 Above:  Okay, there are no roads like that between Philadelphia and Boston.  This shot was taken in Nevada.  But a road is a road is a road, as Aunt Gertrude would have put it.  That sense of limitless possibility is everywhere.


Friday, March 7, 2014

The Wind Rises


I went to see Hayao Miyazaki's new film, The Wind Rises, the other day.  It's important to rush out and see a new Studio Ghibli film as fast as possible because the distributor (Disney) never gives it much of a push or very long in the theaters.

And this is definitely a film worth seeing on the big screen.  My heart belongs to fantasy, so my favorite animated film is still Spirited Away, followed by Princess Mononoke.  But as animation, this may be better than either.  Nobody knows better how a red tin roof or wind in the grass or a dingy, poorly lit hallway should look than Miyazaki.  He is unsurpassed in his portrayal of everyday beauty.  And some of the crowd scenes are probably as detailed and varied in activities shown as anything that's ever been done in the medium.  Put this together with From Up on Poppy Hill, and you've got a great social (though not political) history of Japan for half of the past century.

There's been some controversy because The Wind Risesis a biopic, albeit one with a pacifist message, of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief designer of the Zero, a warplane that killed many Americans in WWII.  But since I have nothing original to say about that, I'll skip over it and go straight to what struck me most strongly:

As portrayed in the movie, Jiro Horikoshi was a talented young man with a strong imagination, in love with flying machines and particularly horrified by war and carpet bombing.  He is more observant and creative than those around him, achieves early and sustained success, and works with a large group of other talented individuals in order to create something extraordinary.  Thosehe works with are perfectly capable of creating a good product.  But with him at the helm, the end result is invariably better than it would be without him.

Which is to say that The Wind Rises is a Mayazaki's hidden autobiography.

I recommend it.  But then, I recommend pretty much everything the man has created.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Five Seasons (Winterthaw)


I was in a consignment shop the other day and bought a cheap frame suitable for holding five small pictures.  I figured I could write five short-shorts for it, just as soon as I found a theme. Almost immediately, I thought, "Five Seasons," and shortly after that, I asked Marianne how the year could best be divided into five.

Together, we came up with Winterthaw, Greengrowth, Summerdeep, Autumnbright, and Darkwinter.  Then, when I got home, I wrote five closely related (but amoral, alas, quite amoral indeed) works of flash fiction.  A little fussing with the word processing program, and all was done.

Here's the first season:


I crave thy pardon, mistress, that I did try to eat thee.  It were the Darkwinter, when we all do what we must to survive.  I understand why thou dost flinch from my touch.

Still.  Didst thou not kill thy sister, who did love thee, when the foodstuffs ran low?  Not that I disapprove.  It were the right thing to do, God wot.  Hunger knows no morals.  I did the same with my father, poor soul.

Those dire times are behind us.  The snows are melting at last.  We can scrabble in the mud for last year’s roots, and perhaps a small rodent or three.  We keep our knives sharp and close to hand, of course, because we each know what the other is capable of.

Now the ice turns back into pond water.  The air is warm.  Desperation falls a day, a second day, a third into the past.  Now at last – though I grip my blade as firmly as thou dost thine – I am free to say . . .

I do love thee.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Our First Third Of A Century


Saturday, Marianne and I reached a milestone in our lives -- thirty-three years and four months of marriage.  We have now been man and wife for over a third of a century

We had been thinking of having a large party.  But because Marianne's mother died in January (at age 103, so it didn't come as a surprise) and Marianne's still in mourning, we had a smaller gathering of close friends whom we've known for many decades.

In keeping with the low-key nature of the celebration, I commissioned something simple to give my beloved:  A silver coin cut into a one-third piece and a two-thirds piece.  Why a coin?  Well, in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, there's this explanation by Jane's one true love:

“… you know how if you take a coin and break it in a vise and throw half in the ocean and keep the other in a dresser drawer, they'll yearn after each other? One day you're taking out a pair of socks and you knock the drawer-half onto the floor without noticing. Somebody kicks it toward the door. A week later, it's half a block away. And the other half meanwhile, a fish swallows it and is caught and gutted and the entrails thrown into the trash, half-coin and all. So that maybe a couple of months later, it might take a century, you'll find the two lying in the sand at the verge of some nothing-special stretch of country road, nestled together. 
"That's kind of how I think we are."

I was thinking of Marianne when I wrote that, and it still seems true to me today.

And since you're wondering . . .

The coin was cut by master jeweler Janet Kofoed.  Her usual work is much more extraordinary (and, for what it is, scandalously underpriced) and can be seen here.