Friday, May 30, 2014

Sellic Spell


I have just received, thanks to Big Blue Marble in Chestnut Hill, my copy of J. R. R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf.

For those who are looking for consumer advice on whether to buy it or not, I will posit a single simple question:  How many translations do you already have?  If the answer is fewer than two, you can probably wait until you run across a copy in somebody's yard sale.

But Beowulf lay at the heart of Tolkien's vision and The Lord of the Rings lies at the heart of modern fantasy, so this is important to those of us who geek out on such things.

I've been waiting for this book for decades, and so I'm not going to rush through it.  But already I've read Sellic Spell ("Strange Tale"), which is the great fantasist's attempt to recreate the story he imagined may well have preceded the poem.   And it was a surprise and a delight.

The prose, to begin with, is bright and crisp, much better than such imaginings usually produce.  (Apparently, he wrote it first in old English and then translated it into modern English.)  But mostly it's full of surprises.  Did you know that Beowulf was raised by a bear?  Or that that he got his name because of how bearish he was?

Here's the description of the hero as a boy:

. . . the child grew to a surly, lumpish boy, and was slow to learn the speech of the land.  He would not work, nor learn the use of tools or weapons.  He had great liking for honey, and often sought for it in the woods, or plundered the hives of the farmers; and as he had no name of his own, people called him Bee-wolf, and that was his name ever after.

This is terrific stuff.  I'm going to enjoy this boy tremendously.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Writing In My Sleep: "Thursday"

Occasionally, I write in my sleep.  Which is not the same as dreaming, really, but a specialized kind of dream in which I put words together to form a work of fiction.  The resulting piece is quickly forgotten upon waking up, as are most dreams.  But occasionally I bestir myself to write them down immediately.

Here is last night's contribution to world literature:


Today is Thursday, named after Thurs Fiordwal, the Swedish calendar maker. Until 1857, there were only six days in the week, and the year consisted of twelve five-week months with five days left over as holidays, six on leap years. Since these days were taken by individual workers operating on the honor system, this proved incompatible with new standards of industrialization and so in 1857 the calendar was reformed. Historians tell us that this was the beginning of the modern era and the first step toward a future which none of us is going to enjoy.

This has been a Bicentennial minute.  Tomorrow:  the history of Cleveland.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ruthless Self Promotion Du Jour


Several of my friends over at Facebook have informed me that my collection of short fiction, The Dog Said Bow-Wow,  is a one-day Kindle special today.  Apparently this is a regular thing that Kindle does.

The deal is that you can buy an e-copy for $1.99 -- but only today.

I think it's a terrific deal because I think it's a terrific book. But, then again, I would.

You can find the offer here.

And in unrelated news . . .

You've probably heard this already, but Maya Angelou has died at age 86.  This is longer than most of us get.  But it still seems unfair.  There are some people whom one expects to simply go on forever and Maya Angelou was one of them.

Marianne's father was one of the deacons of Washington Baptist Churh in Washington, PA.  When he died, the minister compared him to one of the cedars of Lebanon.  "Now he's gone," he said.  "How different the horizon looks!"

Goodbye, Ms. Angelou.  How different the horizon looks without you.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Glitterati Life, Part 5,438 . . .


Above:  The legendary Andy Duncan tries to sell me some absolutely spurious line of reasoning at a reception in his honor at Gregory Frost's house, last Saturday.  I, of course, am not buying it.

Photograph copyright 2014 by Gregory Frost.


Monday, May 26, 2014

The Single Best Story You Won't Read This Year


This is the last of four reviews which appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction.  I don't do many short fiction reviews these days because I have so many other things I have to write.  So when I actually do write such a review it's because I was particularly moved by the story.

If you’ve never been stranded in Beijing Capitol International Airport and tried in vain to derive some aid from the signage, you can’t have a proper appreciation for how hard it must be to translate Chinese into English.  So major props are due to Nicky Harman and Pang Zhaoxia for rendering Zhao Haihong’s “1923 – a fantasy” into a prose so lithe and graceful that it reads as if it had been written in our own language.  This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that Ms. Zhao’s story is a wonderful construct, vivid and nuanced, that shifts effortlessly between modes of storytelling.

Here’s a sample of the mingled art of the writer and her translators.  A Kuomintang operative, a woman with her hair cut mannishly short, enters a nightclub:

. . . Bubbles was greeted by the hostess, who patted her coquettishly on the chest, pushing a white rose into the breast-pocket of her Sun Yat-sen jacket as she did so.  “Good evening, Sir...”
        The Hostess’s words were no sooner out of her mouth than she flinched, her fingers fluttering from Bubbles’ chest like a startled bird.  The corners of Bubbles’ mouth twitched in a smile, which allayed the hostess’s surprise.
        “I’m looking for someone,” Bubbles announced calmly, and slipped into the brightly-coloured world of the club’s interior, crowded with customers cruising in the glittering, night-time waves of light like brilliant tropical fish.  Bubbles melted into the pool of colours, with a flick of her tail as it were, almost giving my imagination the slip.

There are four main characters in this story:  Bubbles, the revolutionary; Jia Su, who is trying to invent a machine that will store memories – or possibly dreams – in water; Meiying, forced by poverty to work as a dance hostess at the nightclub; and the narrator whom Bubbles almost evades.  This last, unnamed person is Zhao’s best invention, the consciousness in which the story is created and yet one who performs a few crucial actions while revealing nothing about the person making them – not even the gender.

The plot is relatively simple.  The narrator finds a box that belonged to his or her great-grandmother (Meiying), containing biographical information about her husband (Jia Su), and two bottles of an unknown liquid.  The written material includes the enigmatic datum that in 1925, the “aqua-dream machine” that Jia Su was working on failed.  What interests the narrator most, however, is family lore that the great-grandfather had once provided shelter to a revolutionary.  The opening of the story, and subsequent segments set in 1923, are the narrator’s imaginative re-creations of the past.

The past, however, is not only a foreign country but one in which we have little influence.  After evoking the nightclub scene (and admitting that the re-creation may be too heavily influenced by classic movie star Brigitte Lin), the narrator is unable to create a romance between Jia Su and Bubbles.  The past is as it was.  The characters go off to their varied fates.  The narrator is left to make sense of it all.

Structurally, the story is a marvel of deftness.  It darts back and forth in time and ends more or less where it begins, with a deepened understanding and a clearer picture of what the imagination can and cannot impose upon what has been.  The narrative is vividly real and yet floats weightlessly in the mind.  “1923 – a fantasy” is every bit as marvelous a machine as the device Jia Su dedicated years of his life to.

It is worth noting that for several decades science fiction was effectively banned in China as a distraction from the serious business of nation-building.  More recently, officialdom has recognized the value of SF as a means of encouraging creative thinking in generation that will need it in the coming years, if their nation is to thrive.  “China in the twenties did not need an aqua-dream machine,” the narrator observes near the end of this tale.  But perhaps now its time has come.           

“1923 – a fantasy” appeared in the Spring & Autumn 2012 special issue (“Chinese Science Fiction: Late Qing and the Contemporary”) of Renditions, a magazine of translations from Chinese to English published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  Which means that, unless you chance upon the Columbia University Press reissue of the magazine as a stand-alone book which is rumored to be forthcoming, you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to read it.  I have told you of its existence simply so that you may know that such marvels exist in the world.

Above:  I couldn't find a copy of the photo of Brigitte Lin looking exactly like Bubbles which appeared in Renditions, so you get the cover of the magazine itself instead.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Clothesline Night


For all its virtues, the Internet has a heavy bias for information created after it came into existence.  Some of this is slowly correcting itself.  When I first came online, I discovered that it contained more references to me than to Konrad Lorenz.  This deplorable situation is, I believe, no more.

Other distortions remain.  If you search online for Clothesline Night -- much less Bean Day -- you'll find next to nothing.  But in the Winooski, Vermont, of my youth it was a very big deal indeed, the opening of the season of vandalism centered on Halloween.

And what was Clothesline Night, you ask?  It was the night when boys ran through the neighborhood with knives (all boys had pocketknives then), cutting every clothesline they found in pieces.  It was definitely a Vermont thing.  My family came to Winooski from Schenectady, New York, and found out about this quaint custom their first year there.  Old-timers all knew to take their clotheslines in the night.

I am the most honest of men.  But it appears that I do not have a trustworthy aspect.  Long ago I learned that if I told somebody it was a beautiful day out, they'd grab their umbrella.  This is a cross I've learned to live with.  Occasionally, I make money by betting that I'm telling the truth.

So it was a particular pleasure to discover the following paired items from the Moberly (Missour) Monitor Index of November 19, 1934, in a column titled AROUND TOWN WITH GOETZE JETER:
HERE'S one for you! It was that always-anticipated "Clothesline Night" before Halloween and the (what scientists term “identical”) twin sons of a certain w. k. local family were out for a lark.
Armed with a pocketknife – surreptitiously sneaked out of t h e house – and accompanied by other youngsters of their neighborhood they set off on a snipping expedition. They had grand sport until they reached one south-side residence.
There they encountered a clothesline that defied the pocketknife, It was made of wire.
Temporarily stumped, one of the twins solved the problem. Knocking at the front door he asked if he could borrow a pair of pliers. They were given to him. He retired to the rear of the house, put them into action, returned to the door with them, extended his thanks for their loan very solemnly and disappeared.
And with him – so the dismayed householders discovered the next morning – had gone their coil of clothesline!

EVERY story has a sequel – and this is this one's.
            Knowing the twins well, the householders still can't place the blame for the trick. The appearance of the twins is so similar they haven't yet remembered which one came to their door that night.
            And the twins haven't confessed. As yet!

I share this with you in the hope that somebody else might step forward to share memories of this revered old holiday which, inexplicably, seems to have faded into obscurity.

The explication of Bean Day I shall leave for another time.

Incidentally, I rather like ol' Goetze.  He seems to have been a man with a sense of humor.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mummers' Song


You may not know it, but I'm an honorary Newfoundlander.  I've kissed the cod at the screech and I have the certificate to prove it.  Even though I do live in Philadelphia.

One thing the citizens of both places have in common is mummers.  Newfoundland's mummers are very much like what our mummers used to be two hundred years ago (except that ours shot off guns in the air) and ours are very much like what theirs might mutate into a couple of hundred years after the Apocalypse.

I wouldn't give up the Philadelphia Mummers for anything.  But how heartwarming and fun Newfoundland mumming looks to be!

The song is by Simani (pronounced Sim 'n' I),  a music duet from you'll never guess where.  Enjoy.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Lost in Pegana


I'm in Japanese print again!  As you may recall, I wrote an introduction to Lost Tales Volume I, the Pegana Press chapbook collection of previously unreprinted Lord Dunsany stories.  Now, that same introduction has been translated by Hiroshi Inagaki and published in volume 14 of the very fine looking Dunsany fanzine, Pegana Lost.

There is, as I'm sure you know, no money involved in such a publication.  But there is the pleasure of being associated with people half a world away who also care passionately about the lapidarian prose of a half-forgotten master of fantasy.  For just a moment, I am there with them.

And yet another reason to wish I knew Japanese!  How much of his stories' special beauty survives the translation?  Or, considering that Japanese tales of the supernatural were clearly one of his influences, is it possible that translation actually improves his tales?  As we are told translation into French does for Poe.

I'll never know, not really.  But it's a pleasant thing to think about. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Books from Lost Poseidonis


I am in the process of amassing a small but very fine collection of Pegana Press books.  The most recent is The Age of Malygris (Poseidonis Cycle I), a slim collection of one prose poem, two stories, and a poem by Clark Ashton Smith.  Plus two large illustrations by Smith himself and an introduction by Donald Sydney-Fryer, of which more soon.

This first thing that has to be said about this book is that it's beautifully made.  My "nano-press" publisher wife, Marianne Porter, opened it and practically swooned over the paper.  And it has that deep, tactile print that you get from letterpress.  And then there's all that business with typography and layout and such that people who care about fine printing get quite emotional about.  Which I have to admit does look quite nice.

But for me, it's all about the prose.  So here's the first paragraph of "The Muse of Atlantis," Smith's first piece in the book:

. . . Will you not join me in Atlantis, where we will go down through streets of blue and yellow marble to the wharves of orichalch, and choose us a galley with a golden Eros for figure-head, and sails of Tyrian sendal?  With mariners that knew Odysseus and beautiful amber-breasted slaves from the mountain-vales of Lemuria, we will lift anchor for the unknown fortunate isles of the outer sea; and sailing in the wake of an opal sunset, will lose that ancient land in the glaucous twilight, and see from our couch of ivory and satin the rising of unknown stars and perished planets.

There is only one place where Atlantis, Tyre, Odysseus, and Lemuria can coexist and that's in the great continent of Romance, which is encircled by the Ocean of Story.  Nor were there ever many who could describe that continent so well as did Clark Ashton Smith.

That kind of lapidary prose, by the way, is even harder to write than it looks.  I know because, like everyone who encounters CAS at the right age, I tried to emulate it.  Only, of course, to fail.  It turns out that the first step in learning to write prose like that is to become a poet.

This brings me to the introduction, written by poet Donald Sidney-Fryer, who has the happy distinction of not only being influenced by Clark Ashton Smith but of having met him as well.  The intro is chiefly an examination of CAS's poetic virtues, but it also touches lightly upon the man's difficult life.  As a ruling whimsy, Sidney-Fryer postulates that the fantasist we know was merely a single reincarnation of (as H. P. Lovecraft dubbed him), Klarkash-Ton, High Priest of Atlantis.  Which seems fitting for a man whose fantasies may well have served as an escape from an often hardscrabble existence.

Donald Sidney-Fryer also insists that "The Last Incantation" and "The Death of Malygris" are not stories but prose-poems, and as a poet himself he would know.  But as a prose fantasist, I must insist that they are stories as well, and ones I enjoyed greatly.

Finally, I should mention that at $125, this is a costly little item when compared to your average mass market paperback. However, for a hand-made and lovingly-crafted book, issued in a limited edition of only fifty-five copies, it's a steal.

This is a volume that Clark Ashton Smith would have loved.

You can find information about the book here.  Or you can just to go the Pegana Press site and wander around by clicking here.

Above:  In this photo the label looks a little worn; but actually it's printed on a quite lovely paper with a pattern of gold streaks criss-crossing it.  Marianne admires it greatly.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mea Culpa

I have several deadlines going at once, so the usual Wednesday update will be made tomorrow instead of today.

I feel bad about this, but I made promises to editors and it's a matter of principle for me to keep such promises whenever I can.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Voter Number 3

I got up this morning, had coffee, read the newspaper, and then walked over to the polling place, which is at the high school this year.

I always defer to Marianne at the polls, which is how I wound up as Voter 3.  Of course, it was a primary election -- and mostly a Commonwealth primary at that.  (In Philadelphia, the primaries are important because the Democratic candidate always wins.  So if you want a say in how the city is run, you register as a Democrat.  I learned that my first year here, when I registered as an Independent.)  Still, it's always sad when the turnout is low.

Me, I always vote.  Sometimes it's hard to figure out who to vote for.  Sometimes I have to scramble to find someone to vote against.  But patriots died to give me this privilege and I take it very seriously indeed.  The president of the NRA is going to say, "Take my guns away -- I don't want 'em!" long before they manage to pry the ballot out of my cold, dead fingers.

Afterward, Marianne and I went to Bob's Diner for breakfast.  I had an eggamuffin with scrapple, hash browns on the side, coffee, and orange juice.  Bob's serves up hash browns and scrapple both with a nice crusty surface.  So I headed home in a happy mood and ready to work.


Monday, May 19, 2014

The Wailing of the Gaulish Dead


Avram Davidson was, poor bastard, one of the greatest American short story writers of the Twentieth Century, an achievement not unrelated to the fact that he died in poverty.  To make matters worse, he was also a master of the discursive essay, an art form whose monetary return per hour spent on research makes short fiction, and possibly even poetry, seem lucrative by comparison.

So when Davidson wrote The Wailing of the Gaulish Dead, unpublished in his lifetime, almost lost after his demise, preserved in a single typescript copy by collector Iain Odlin, and now available from the Avram Davidson Society and the Nutmeg Point District Mail as a limited edition handsome crafted hardcover with a cogent and lucid introduction by Eileen Gunn, there was no incentive for him to write to please anybody but himself.  His late prose style, legendarily daunting, is to be found here in early blossom.  This is a typical sample:

Time and again I have found that “even when I do not seek, I find” – serendipity this may be called, it being understood that what one finds is found while seeking something else – not always, alas, but often, often, often:  once one has determined to find something out, it will find itself out for you.  Often.  To invent an example, suppose that you have become interested in butterflies as articles of human clothing.  You may find information under butterflies, you may find it under clothing; then again, you may not.  The matter may be half-abandoned, half-forgotten . . . for a while.  And then, without a thought in the world as regards butterflies as articles of human clothing, casually you begin a book about – say – Virginia Woolf.  And there, on pages 27 and 28, you find yourself reading, as it might be, that Virginia Woolf’s eccentric cousin Algernon Stephen as a young man spent a year in Fantaanango, a country in the Central Indies where to his astonishment he found the natives adorning their clothing with the wings of gorgeous butterflies.  In one of his frequent letters home, he wrote . . . .
And so on.
I repeat:  this example is fictitious.

Now, either that oft-reworked, cunningly crafted sort of prose appeals to you or it does not, and if it does not you might as well keep on moving down the midway where there are booths galore catering to your particular tastes.  But for those few – those “happy few,” as the Bard would have it – who can savor the great man at his most Davidsonian – surely there are enough of us to sell out this edition of 200, though the text of the essay is only 37 pages long and it costs $25.00 plus postage – there is only one place to get it.
This essay is one of a series, almost all of which were collected in the Owlswick Press collection, Adventures in Unhistory (later reprinted by Tor Books).  But where those others largely explored the origins and lore of various supernatural creatures, The Wailing of the Gaulish Dead deals with… well, to say exactly what it is about would be to give away the essay’s conclusion.  Davidson began with a phrase, apparently his own, which popped into his head one day and which serves as the title of the essay.  Intrigued, he set out to discover exactly what he meant by it.
Thus begins a voyage through the mind of a brilliant autodidact, a man who engaged in esoteric research not for profit or academic survival but simply for the fun of it.  Those who can enjoy such company on a journey with no obvious direction or destination know who they are.  Others, as I said, should keep moving.  I witnessed a reader reach the end of this essay and burst into delighted laughter.  

And . . .

You can find the ordering page for the book here.

Above:  An image of the binding of the book taken from the Avram Davidson Society ordering page.  The review first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction and is copyright 2014 by Michael Swanwick.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons, Blurbs & Reviews


As always, I'm on the road again.  But in my absence, good news...

Tom Purdom, who has been writing and publishing science fiction for over fifty years -- the number of people who can make that claim constitute a very small and illustrious club -- has just started getting reviews for his first collection, Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons, published by Fantastic Books.

But before I get to that, let me once again share with you the blurbs that I and some of of Tom's other admirers gave his book:

"Very simply, Tom Purdom IS science fiction. His ever-inventive stories are cut from the cloth of it and sewn with the skill of a master." —Gregory Frost

"Tom Purdom made his first professional sale all the way back in 1957. It's hard to think of any other member of his generation whose current work is frequently mentioned in the same breath with that of writers such as Charles Stross, Greg Egan, and Alastair Reynolds, many of whom were not even born when Tom started his professional career, but Tom's is. In fact, for sweep and audacity of imagination and a wealth of new ideas and dazzling conceptualization, Tom Purdom not only holds his own with the New Young Turks of the '90s and the Oughts, he sometimes surpasses them. And unlike some of today's Hot New Writers, Tom's work never fails to ALSO feature fascinating and psychologically complex characters, and intrepid investigation into the human heart." —Gardner Dozois

"Tom Purdom is the most underrated science fiction writer I know of. His short fiction delivers again and again with great plots, characters, and an imagination both cosmic and delicately complex." —Jeffrey Ford

"Purdom has created a major body of work. Thoughtful, humane, intelligent, extrapolative, involving, his stories are exactly the sort of thing our genre exists to make possible. If you don't like Tom Purdom, you don't like science fiction. Period." —Michael Swanwick

That's what we said.  But how would people who were not necessarily admirers of the man's work for many decades respond?

Well . . .  Over at Analog, reviewer Don Sakers said, "The twelve SF stories in Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons are a perfect blend of really cool ideas and believable, sympathetic characters. Beyond that, Purdom doesn’t shy away from exploring the moral and ethical choices of his characters.... Definitely recommended."

Andrew Andrews at True Review summed up the book by saying, "Tom Purdom has assembled a great collection of tales."

And a medley of reviewers at Library Thing wrote things like:

"Before receiving this book I had never heard of Tom Purdom but I’m very glad that I have now. All of his stories, no matter how out there and fantastic they are have a solid, grounded feeling to them, you are reading about real people with real motivations and even when the characters or situations are completely alien they are relatable."


"Purdom writes about characters; while there is obviously a science fictional basis for every story, the primary point is how the characters relate to one another. Frequently one or more of those characters have modifications that make them behave in a certain way emotionally or physically, and the point of the story is to examine how they interact with other, unmodified people."


"I've enjoyed Tom Purdom's stories over the past few years as they've appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, with which I struggle to keep up. However, this volume gives me a much stronger sense of him as a writer, and a much stronger sense of his -- heretofore unrealized by me -- admirable range. Prior to reading this book I would have characterized him as an enjoyable creator of alien races, but someone you would read and like and quickly move on from, rather than as a writer you would actively seek out for another throat-grab. This book has changed my mind. In a rare occurrence, the blurbs on the back cover of Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons are true: Tom Purdom is seriously underrated. He was underrated by me, for one. "


"There are several other outstanding Purdom works that could have been included in this book. For now, this is a good start in recognizing a writer too long ignored. Every one of these stories, first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction from 1992 to 2012, is worth reading."

And, most succinctly:

"If you like science fiction you will probably like this book." 

So why do I share these reviews with you at such length?  Simply because it gives me the opportunity to say something I've been waiting forever to write:

Told you so.

You can read the Analog review here, the one from True Review here, and the Library Thing reviews here.

And speaking of Catherine Asaro . . .

I've just heard from everybody's favorite purveyor of romance-and-hard-science SF novels that she's launched a Kickstarter campaign for her science fiction collection Aurora in Four Voices.  This was a limited-edition small press book containing five stories and novellas (the title comes from a Hugo and Nebula nominated novella) including the Nebula winning "Spacetime Pool," plus an essay on Catherine's use of mathematics in her fiction.

Technically, the book isn't unavailable -- ABE has one copy listed for seventy dollars plus shipping from the UK.  But if you'er a fan of Catherine Asaro and don't already have a copy, the audiobook is probably your best shot.

You can find the project here.  It looks to be doing well.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

There Is No Hope. I Choose To Hope.

Let me start by observing that every single human being I know -- and this emphatically includes conservatives -- is AGAINST kidnapping schoolgirls and selling them into slavery. Are you nuts?  Of COURSE they are.

Of course we are.

Yet some self-identified "conservative" pundits have been mocking the hashtag bringbackourgirls thing, asking what material good it does.  To them I have only this to say:  moved by the umpteenth hundredth TV article about this, I just made a donation to Anti-Slavery International.  It's not much.  But it's something.

Anti-Slavery International is, at 175 years, the oldest anti-slavery organization in the world.  It is a disgrace that they are still in existence.  You can donate money to them here.

Let's do our small bit to put this organization out of business.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our Inadequately Understood Universe


Here's quite a nice overview of the computer model built at MIT to recreate thirteen billion years of the evolution of the universe.

Very pretty stuff.

But more and more I find myself thinking of celestial spheres.  In classical times it was thought that the stars all rested on the surface of a sphere.  The complex motions of the planets were explained by assuming that each was embedded in its own, independently moving transparent sphere.  (Made of quintessence -- but let's not go there today.)

This system worked well enough, particularly after Copernicus placed the Sun at the center of everything.  But only just well enough.  As the measurements of planetary orbits got better and better, deviance from predicted results had to be explained away.  To the orderly cycles were added epicycles and eccentrics.  Angels were recruited to keep the things spinning.  The machinery kept getting more and more complicated.

Meanwhile, troublemakers like Tycho Brahe discovered that comets passed effortlessly through these supposedly crystal spheres.

It wasn't until Johannes Kepler scrapped the entire system (well, almost all -- he kept the outermost celestial sphere so the stars would have a place to perch on) in favor of celestial mechanics that it all made sense again.

So every time I hear about the necessity of dark matter to make the numbers line up right, or the need for dark energy to explain observed phenomena, or that the rate of expansion for the universe is speeding up, or that in the early stages of cosmic evolution the whole shebang moved faster than the speed of light, or that "Einstein's greatest blunder," the cosmological constant, has been yet again added to or subtracted from our understanding of the Way Things Are . . .

Well.  I just have to wonder if we're not missing something very simple and counterintuitive.

After all, how can the planets keep from falling down if they're not embedded in crystal spheres?

And . . .

Stephen Notley, the cartoonist-creator of Bob the Angry Flower did a much more succinct critique of the currently accepted model of cosmology in a cartoon titled CREATION:  A Science Story.  You can find it here.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Portrait of the Artist on Adolf Hitler's Birthday


The following is a short story review.  Enjoy!

“The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942” (The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson, Night Shade Books, 2010) exists entirely within a single performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler on April 19, 1942 in honor of Adolf Hitler’s birthday the following day.  You can go onto YouTube and find this concert.  It was filmed for propaganda purposes and it’s an almost physical shock to see the swastika banners, the bland-faced Nazi celebrities appropriating the music’s prestige for their own the way they might a Jew-owned Rembrandt, the way the camera lingers over handsome young soldiers who have gladly sacrificed an eye or a limb to the glory of their genocidal cause.  The footage raises uncomfortable questions about the relationship between art and power and to what degree the one is corrupted by the other.  This particular rendition of the Ninth, moreover, is masterful.  Critics consider it one of the greatest interpretations ever performed.  It is full of fury and violence, echoing the times and war in which it takes place, and is clearly a statement on its times.  But what is being said?
The event demands explication.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s story is both a careful establishment of the context for this concert (it was a command performance, and one which Furtwangler had been ducking for years) and a close reading of the emotional text of the interpretation – exactly what Furtwangler meant by it – as mediated by an ordinary man who happens to be the orchestra’s timpanist.

Line by line, paragraph by page, Robinson has never written better than here.

That said, it must be mentioned that “The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942” is not by any reading a work of science fiction or fantasy.
However, a perceptive reader will easily tell that this is a mainstream story written by a writer forged in genre.  For a very long time the consensus model for non-genre fiction (but there are signs that this may be changing) has been one where the events serve to illuminate the inner life of its main character.  Not so here.  The timpanist is a perfectly convincing creation, but he is also, except for his profession, one whose character is neither central to the story nor revealed by its end.  Rather, Robinson uses events to make a larger statement – about art, about history, about culture.  You can decide on the specifics for yourself.  It is a work of art that looks outward, rather than inward.

Were this science fiction, it would be easily one of the best SF stories of its year.  As it stands, it is simply one of the best stories of its year.

Need I say period?  Very well, then.  Period.

This review first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction and is copyright 2014 by Michael Swanwick.