Friday, January 30, 2015

Celebrating Chip Delany


I was seventeen when I first read The Einstein Intersection. It was an important book for me.  Its author, Samuel R. Delany, was only twenty-five when he wrote it and already he was transforming the genre of science fiction. It is hard to exaggerate the influence he has had on us all.

So when Nisi Shawl asked me to contribute to a festschrift in Delany's honor, there was only one response I could make.

Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi and Bill Campbell, will be published in July by Rosarium Publishing.  It contains stories and essays in Chip's honor.

Here, in alphabetical order by author, is the table of contents:

Christopher Brown Festival

Chesya Burke For Sale: Fantasy Coffin

Roz Clarke Haunt-type Experience

Kathryn Cramer Characters in the Margins of a Lost Notebook

Vincent Czyz Hamlet's Ghost Sighted in Frontenac, KS

Junot Díaz Nilda

Geetanjali Dighe The Last Dying Man

L. Timmel Duchamp Real Mothers, a Faggot Uncle, and the Name of the Father: Samuel R. Delany's Feminist Revisions of the Story of SF

Hal Duncan An Idyll in Erewhyna

Fabio Fernandes Eleven Stations

Jewelle Gomez Be Three

Eileen Gunn Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005

Nick Harkaway Billy Tumult

Ernest Hogan Guerilla Mural of a Siren's Song

Nalo Hopkinson & Nisi Shawl Jamaica Ginger

Walidah Imarisha Walking Science Fiction: Samuel Delany and Visionary Fiction

Alex Jennings Heart of Brass

Tenea D. Johnson Each Star a Sun to Invisible Planets

Ellen Kushner Delany Story

Claude Lalumiere Empathy Evolving as a Quantum of Eight-Dimensional Perception

Isiah Lavender Delany Encounters

devorah major Voice Prints

Haralambi Markov Holding Hands with Monsters

Anil Menon Clarity

Carmelo Rafala Song for the Asking

Kit Reed Kickenders

Kim Stanley Robinson Introduction

Benjamin Rosenbaum The First Gate of Logic

Geoff Ryman Capitalism in the 22nd Century

Alex Smith Clones

Michael Swanwick On My First Reading of The Einstein Intersection

Sheree Renee Thomas River Clap Your Hands

Kai Ashante Wilson "Legendaire"

So now you know whether you need this book or not.  I'm a big fan of books where you can say that.

You can find the Rosarium Publishing site here.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Memoir in the Form of Four Denim Jackets (Part 2)


This denim jacket isn't even mine. It belonged to a young woman I met when worked as a Clerk-Typist 1 for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories.  At the time it was located in Landis, an old tuberculosis hospital in Philadelphia.  Marianne Catherine Porter was an interesting woman.  She was trained as a marine biologist and worked for the Bureau as microbiologist.  The patches on her hacking-about jacket were for various bird sanctuaries she'd visited, including one in Trinidad and Tobago.  Not visible in this photo is a patch on one sleeve for the Space Shuttle, which she had seen in transit.

Marianne was smart, witty, and had a variety of interests.  She was exactly the sort of person I wanted to have for a friend.  So what is her jacket doing in my closet?

Reader, I married her.

Above:  I like to tell people we met in a TB hospital.  It sounds more romantic that way.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dogfight -- the Movie


Nothing is ever certain in the film industry, but it looks like the movie version of "Dogfight" might actually get made.

"Dogfight," for those who don't know, is a story I co-wrote with William Gibson long, long ago.  How long ago?  So long ago that when it was published my name came before Bill's.  He was still working on Neuromancer then, and we were both all but unknown.

Now director Simon Pummell is writing the script for his version of the story.  This is not going to be a big Hollywood production -- and that's a good thing.  Most of those movies, I can call the plot twists before they happen.  Pummel is essentially an art movie guy and  a BAFTA winner.  I have no idea what he intends to do with the story.

So I've got my fingers crossed on this one.  Because I really want to find out.

You can read about it here.


Monday, January 26, 2015

A Memoir in the Form of Four Denim Jackets (Part 1)


I'm never going to write an autobiography.  But while cleaning out the downstairs closet, I unearthed four denim jackets from my past.  Here's the first:

The Seventies:

I came to Philadelphia in the winter of 1973 with fifty dollars in my pocket, a two-pack-a-day habit, and a friend who was willing to let me crash on his couch.  By the time I found a job that spring, I'd lost forty pounds.

But I've written about that elsewhere.  This jacket was from slightly later, when things were getting better.  I had no beard in those day and hair down below my shoulders. I ran with a scruffy batch of art students, musicians, underachievers, and the like.  Collectively, we had a thousand shifts for getting by.  One of my friends embroidered mandalas on the backs of blue denim jackets and sold them to a boutique, where their prices were jacked sky-high.  She offered to make one for me, and I requested she embroider one of my dragons instead.  I wore black denim then because I was in my early twenties and more than a little Byronic.

I wore this jacket to my first Worldcon -- MidAmeriCon in Kansas City.

The day I put that jacket in the back of the closet, I found a small American flag on the sidewalk, picked it up, and put it in a pocket.  Back then, it would have been a bad idea to wear such a thing in public.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Ask Good Questions


Back in December, Adam Claxton wrote here, asking how (and here I paraphrase and oversimplify) a new writer can cope with the despair that seems to be an intrinsic part of being a writer.  I answered him as honestly as I could.  And then an interesting thing happened.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro picked up the question and used it as the basis for a Locus Online roundtable discussion.

So now such literary luminaries as Peter Straub, Cecelia Holland, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Dirda, and many more (hi, Cat!) have put serious thought into Adam's question.  Simply because it was a good one.

When writers are just starting out, the awareness of how little inflence they have can be enervating.  Yet with one good question, Adam was able to, if only briefly, engage the thoughts of people he must surely admire.

This shows the power of good questions.  They get even more powerful when you ask them of a story you're writing.  Not questions you already know the answers to, but ones you don't.  Questions like "What would a woman really do in this situation?" Or "How would this technology change the people who use it?"  Or (and this is a classic) "Who gets hurt?"

Ask good questions.  Let your story answer them.  You'll be surprised what it has to say.

You can read the Locus Roundtable here.  And you can read the original blogpost here.

Above:  As always, writing advice applies only to those for whom it works.  There are all kinds of writers.  If the above doesn't work for you, you're just not the kind of writer for whom it works.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

[dream diary]


January 21, 2015

Of my final dream of the night, I can remember only four things:

1. It was a serious art-dream.

2.  Its title was OPOSSUM

3.  The last name of its author was La Feignis.

4.  No opossums appeared in the dream.

Above:  Max Ernst.  The man rules.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Fragmented Masterpiece of Isaac Babel


Over on Facebook, one of my Ukrainian friends asked me why I named my blog Flogging Babel, and wondered whether I'd ever read the works of the great Isaac Babel.

The blog's name came about because I started it in part to promote what was then my new novel, The Dragons of Babel.  Coming from a generation which thought self-promotion something of a character flaw, I chose the word "flogging" as a gentle bit of self-mockery.  In retrospect, I probably should have thought of how odd the title would look a few books down the road.

As for Isaac Babel... Oh, yes.  I once brought a copy of The Red Cavalry Stories with me to Russia, in fact, as my reading material.  If you haven't read the stories yet, I strongly urge them upon you.  They are an intellectual adventure.  But not a light one.  Here, chopped from a longer essay about fix-ups and very lightly rewritten to make it a stand-alone essay, is my take on it.

Isaac Babel’s Shattering Masterpiece

Isaac Babel’s most famous work is The Red Cavalry Stories, ostensibly nothing more than a collection of stories with a common setting and recurrent characters – the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 and the soldiers and civilians caught up in it.  By any measure, it is a major work of literature, terrifying, moving, and a judgment on the human condition.  Babel was involved in the war as a propaganda officer, and spent much of his time trying to prevent Cossacks from executing their prisoners.  From the atrocities, rapes, and casual murders he witnessed, he created something of enormous depth.

Yet not all of the stories are impressive as stories.  Some are vignettes or even anecdotes.  They grow in cumulative power as the book is read, events recur, people show themselves in different aspects.  This is an effect that relies heavily on the stories being read in the order presented.  (Babel wrote more Red Cavalry stories after the book’s publication; when they are included, they are grouped separately, as afterthoughts, so as not to interrupt the original structure.)  Read randomly, they would still impress and terrify.  But the work as whole would be greatly diminished.

What makes this particularly interesting is that the stories themselves are seemingly presented in only the loosest order.  A story begins to tell one tale and then is interrupted and goes haring off after a totally different one.  Narratives begun in one story are dropped abruptly, only to be picked up again later in the book.  Events appear out of chronological order.  Characters disappear and then reappear, sometimes greatly altered and other times heartbreakingly unchanged.  Some never turn up again, and the reader may or may not learn what becomes of them.  The narrative intelligence darts from memory to memory, never lingering long, fleeing from one to another like a sleeping man trying to dream his way out of a nightmare.

Taken as a whole, The Red Cavalry Stories looks like nothing so much as the fragments of a novel which cannot be written.

There is a scene in Federico Fellini’s Satiricon set in a workshop where Roman artists are creating  fragmentary mosaics and statues without arms or heads.  Babel’s book can be best understood as that same artistic project taken seriously rather than as a throwaway joke. It is a novel whose continuity has been shattered by the enormities that the author witnessed.

The novel is literature’s ultimate expression of moral sense made structure, a summation and universal comprehension of the world.  So when there is no sense and can be no comprehension, it is inadequate to the task and the artist needs a new form.  Call The Red Cavalry Stories a mosaic novel if you wish or a chimera if you will.  But it is not merely a collection of short stories.

It is a work of traumatized genius.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Alice K. Turner, Last of Her Kind


This is extremely sad.  Alice K. Turner died last night, of pneumonia.  Alice is best known for her twenty years as fiction editor of Playboy for two decades (1980-2000), during which time she was remarkably receptive to science fiction, provided only that it was as good as or better than anything else she might have bought that month.  During her tenure, the fiction -- whether genre or not -- was always worth buying the magazine for.

Alice's attitude toward science fiction showed in the fact that she kept up her association with it after retirement, attending the occasional convention, writing critical essays and, with Michael Andre-Driussi, editing the critical volume Snake's-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley.  She also wrote The History of Hell, a work of non-fiction.

Alice was a delight to hang out with and talk with.  What she liked, she liked for the best of reasons, all of which she could articulate.  If what you had to say was worth hearing, she would listen to you forever.  But only the most boorish of creatures would attempt to dominate a conversation with her, because her wit and insight were of the finest water.

Alice's good friend, Ellen Datlow, another editor of renown, notes that a friend called her "one of the last grande dames of New York."  Not a bad encomium for a smart, elegant, and wholly admirable woman to receive.

Above: Ellen Datlow's photo of Alice Turner. 


Friday, January 16, 2015

Problems of Literary Success


Back in the early 1980s, when I was a new writer and my generational peers (Pat Cadigan, Bill Gibson, Bruce Sterling, etc., etc.) were blasting holes in science fiction as it was then and building up strange new structures to the empty spaces, I got an invitation from a science fiction club in Dublin to speak there.  They couldn't afford to fly me in from America, they said, but if I was ever in Europe they could cover my travel expenses.

As luck would have it, not long after, Marianne and I decided to go to Ireland, rent a car, and see as much as two human beings possibly could in two weeks.  So I wrote back to say I'd be in Dublin on such and so specific dates and would be happy to talk to and with the club at no expense to them.

No reply.

In the months leading up to the trip, I wrote a few more letters, with the same lack of response.  The last one gave the telephone number of our landlady on Clontarf Road and said they could leave a message for me with her.

No reply.

Standing on the quad of Trinity University, Marianne asked, a little mournfully, "Why can't you get the cool speaking invitations that others writers do?" I could only shrug.

Two weeks later, we were home again.  Two days after that, I received another message from the same science fiction club.  Their secretary had quit, taking with him or her all their correspondence, it said.  But if I was ever in Europe, they'd love to have me come for a talk.

I was put in mind of this story because recently I received an invitation to a part of the world I love and had to turn it down . . . because I'll be in China at the scheduled time.

I'm sure your heart bleeds for me.

Above:  My thanks to Shamil Idiatullin for alerting me to the cover of the Russian edition of The Iron Dragon's Daughter and  The Dragons of Babel.  It looks great, doesn't it?  The artist is Sergey Shikin.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This Wonderful Buttery World


I just drove home from Harrisburg and, boy, are my tires armed!  Thank you, ladies and germs.  I'll be here all week.

Seriously, it was great fun attending the Pennsylvania Farm Show.  It's the one time of year when farmers get to strut their stuff and the rest of us get to admire them.  [The Web being what it is, I should mention that I mean that quite seriously.]

This year I was particularly struck by the weight of time and technology behind every aspect of the food we eat.  It takes a lot of concentrated effort and selective breeding to create a Black Breasted Red Old English Game Bantam Chicken.  And the carriages that horses pull nowadays?  George Washington could only dream of their like.

But let's be honest here, it's the butter sculpture everybody wants to see.  So there it is up top, a little murkily photographed but well worth seeing.  Because it includes a butter cow.  You don't get much butter sculpturey-er than that.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Your Moment of Nabokov


A literary figure hounded by an increasingly hostile biographer is a premise ready-made for Vladimir Nabokov's fiction.  So it's ironic that, late in life and at the height of his success, his relationship with Andrew Field, author of four books (and a bibliography) about Nabokov, went from friendship to sourness to reciprocal spite.

In Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (p. 618), Boyd record of Field that, among his many other alleged sins:

Informed that an event he had assigned to 'a wet autumnal day' had in fact taken place 'in July,' he had simply retyped the phrase as 'a wet autumnal day in July.'

Which is a detail so perfectly apt that one wonders it doesn't appear in one of the novels.


Friday, January 9, 2015


Je suis Stephane.
Je suis Jean.
Je suis Georges.
Je suis Bernard.
Je suis Philippe.
Je suis Bernard.
Je suis Elsa.
Je suis Mustapha.
Je suis Michel.
Je suis Frederic.
Je suis Franck.
Je suis Ahmed.

Je suis Charlie.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Best SF Short Story Award


If it weren't for the fact that the gods loathe hubris and are quick to wrath, I'd casually declare that I've won my first award of the year.  As if it were no big deal and I were expecting several dozen more over the next twelve months.

So I'll just state happily that Best SF, a website I visit regularly for their short fiction reviews, has chosen "Passage of Earth" as best short story of the year.

You can read about it here.  And read the original review of the story here.  Or (and this is probably the best way to do it) you can just go to the main site, wandering about and looking for suggestions of stories you might want to look up, the way I do, here.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  That's what happens when you have the freedom to travel and can afford to do so.  Trips happen.


Monday, January 5, 2015

The Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year!


It's January, so once again the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family has convened to deliberate on which of the many honorable attempts will be 2014's Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year.

As always, it was a contentious process.  I, for one, felt that cards actively promoting demonology or even Satanism ought to be allowed in the competition.  Marianne adamantly believed that in opposition they asserted at least the existence of a Deity.  Finally, she won the day by pointing out that the immortal Jason Van Hollander's Hell Stamps mailing was not actually a holiday card but a gift tag accompanying a work of art.  Similarly, John and Judith Clute's card, always a contender, was ruled spiritual by the inclusion of what we believe to be Raven's image.  The fact that the card also featured people screaming in terror was ruled irrelevant.

Other cards escaped the honor by the flimsiest of rationales.  One art card featuring the sender's oil of woods in autumn was deemed to imply the season of winter by evoking a scene within three months of it.  The Edgar Allen Poe card was ruled Christmasy by the fact that Poe was wearing a scarf and his raven a nightcap similar to Santa's.  The Cthulhu Claus card was the victim of similar solipsism. My sister's card featuring a trophy mount of Rudolph's head was judged to be too similar to a winning card she sent in a prior year.

Finally, the judging came down to two cards -- neither of which anybody wanted to disqualify.  But my suggestion that we declare a tie was hooted down by the panel.  "No wonder nobody respects liberals!" Sean declared in exasperation.  Our friend Li's card, showing an alien hellscape dominated by a science fictional city built entirely of kitchen utensils was not only the first card we received by a front-runner throughout.

But at last, in a split decision ( this almost never happens!), a winner was chosen:  Photographer Beth Gwinn's breathtaking Poinsettia Patty card.

(Beth Gwinn took two author photographs of me -- which I use for the insides of dust jackets and the like -- so good that I've resolved to stop aging, simply so that I never have to replace them with inferior portraits.  She's really a brilliant photographer.  You can visit her website here.)

Beth's photograph won despite utilizing poinsettias (a plant associated with Christmas) because of the model's air of haughty disregard and the high degree of design and beauty put into the service of a most un-Christmasy sentiment, and because the message inside ("...HAVE YOUR POINSETTIAS SPAYED OR NEUTERED THIS HOLIDAY SEASON") managed to seamlessly insert the theme of castration into a holiday card.

Well done, Ms Gwinn!  Your vintage Marvel no-prize is winging its way through to aether to you at this very moment.

Above:  Seriously, those in need an author photo should check out Beth Gwinn's work.  I'm delighted with how good she made me look.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Your New Year's Resolutions


This post is for all the gonnabe writers out there.  This year you will:

1. Write prodigiously.

There is no way around this one.

2.  Finish what you write.

There's an old saying that stories are not finished but abandoned.  There comes a point at which all the rewriting and revising in the world is not going to make the story any better.  To the contrary, it's going to make the story worse.  You have to learn to stop when you reach that point.

3.  Submit your fiction to paying markets.

It's entirely possible that the best writer in the world is named Hieronymus Lafcadio Smith.  But since nobody by that name has ever been published, we'll never know.

4.  Continue to submit your fiction until somebody buys it.

I've known a lot of talented writers who couldn't take rejection.  You've never heard of any of them.

6.  Refrain from giving me a hard time for ripping off Robert Heinlein for this advice.

That's what dead writers are for.  Feel free to steal everything you can -- save actual combinations of words -- from them.

Above:  If proof were ever needed that I'm not much of a photographer, there it is.  The Philadelphia Mummers are the most photogenic people on earth.  Their parades are filled with images straight out of dreams -- or even hallucinations.  If you ever get a chance to see them in person (television is nowhere near as good), by all means do.