Monday, November 30, 2015

The Parable of the Creche


Did everybody have a pleasant Thanksgiving? I hope so. Here in Roxborough, we had the traditional combination of family and food and happiness, just the way things are supposed to be. If I could carry away but a single image of the day, it would be Sean taking Aunt Evangeline into the back yard to show her the laser lights. At his urging, she raised her arms and saw how the lights flowed over her, as if she were afloat in some otherworldly cosmic ocean.

Now the one holiday is done and the Christmas season begun. I am old enough that I can remember people being shocked when stores put up the Christmas decorations immediately after Thanksgiving. Today, when they start going up, this seems wonderfully naive.
Well... times change and our perceptions of time with them. In years past, I've posted "The Parable of the Creche" on Christmas Eve. But this year, I plan to replace that traditional retelling with a more sentimental one.  So here, a month earlier than used to be, I reprise...

The Parable of the Creche

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

It was a common sight to see people standing before the creche, especially at night, admiring it.  Sometimes parents brought their small children to see it for the first time and that was genuinely touching.  It provided a welcome touch of seasonality and community to the park.

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

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

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

But did this make us happy?  It did not.   The creche was just not the same, located in front of a church.  It seemed lessened, in some strange way, made into a prop for the Presbyterians.  You didn’t see people standing before it anymore.

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

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


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Writers and the Mail


Writers have a passionate relationship with the mail. I recall visiting a friend who was a writer and who lived in an apartment where he could hear when the mailman delivered the mail. We'd be talking, there'd be the sound of mail, and up he'd leap. If his wife was there, she'd snap, "Sit down! The mail will be there later. Why do you always have to make such a fuss over the mail?"

Then my friend's wife made her first sale. And my friend was never again the first person to reach the mailbox.

All of which is prelude to my saying... Look what came in the mail!  It's the Subterranean Press limited, oversized edition of Rogues, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Slipcased, with a stellar lineup of fiction, and a cover and interior illustrations, all pretty nifty, by Ken Laager.  Autographed by both editors and all the authors. Issued in a limited edition and a lettered edition, both rather pricey and both already sold out. Pretty much immediately, apparently.

Luckily for me, I had "Tawny Petticoats," a Darger & Surplus story in the volume, so now I own a copy.

I also get money in the mail. But it's little perks like this that make the whole process so much fun.


Monday, November 23, 2015

A Question

Is it the function of science fiction to Tell The Truth? Or to Provoke Thought?

I ask because I have not the least idea what the answer is.

Do you?


Friday, November 20, 2015

The Phantom in the Maze


"The Phantom in the Maze," the seventh and newest story in my Mongolian Wizard series is coming soon from Of it, I shall only say that it marks a significant turn in the wizard war enveloping Europa. With this story, the essential parameters of the series have all been established. The as-yet-unwritten stories will chronicle the consequences of decisions that have already been made.

One of the great pleasures of this series for me is that the good people at Tor have paid Gregory Manchess to illustrate them, and he's done fantastic job with the assignments. Over at the Muddy Colors blog, he's posted the illo for my story (that's it above), along with notes of the process by which he found the images he wanted and how they ultimately came together.

One of many things I like about this illustration is how many plot elements of the story it contains without giving a single one of them away. When the story comes out, I advise that you look at it carefully and then, after reading the story, look at it again. It really is a very different image when you know what's going on.

You can read Manchess's blog post here.

And as usual, this time of year...

I'll be at Philcon in Cherry Hill pretty much all weekend. If you're there, be sue to say hi.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Philcon Schedule


Philcon is this weekend and, as usual, I'll be there. Here's my schedule. But if you want to say hi, you can just walk up to me pretty much anytime. I'm a pretty easy-going guy.

Fri 7:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Michael Swanwick (mod), Ken Altabef, Anastasia
Klimchynskaya, Christie Meierz, Alexis Gilliland]

Discussing the scientific rationales in fantasy worlds. Who created
the most coherent and believable premises for how their worlds

Sat 2:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Dina Leacock (mod), Michael Swanwick, Michael F. Flynn,
Marilyn Brahen, Gordon Linzner, Robert Kauffmann]

You need a beginning, middle and end...but not necessarily in that
order. How do you avoid losing a reader's interest when you're
telling a story in a non-linear manner

Sat 7:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Michael Swanwick (mod), A.T. Greenblatt, April Grey, Ken

Is the way writers of fantastic fiction use their life experiences
in their work inherently different from the way mainstream writers
apply it

Sat 9:00 PM in Plaza IV (Four) (1 hour)

[Panelists: David M. Axler (mod), Michael Swanwick, Neil Clarke]

They're intended to reward quality and ensure that outstanding
writers of an overlooked genre received proper recognition, but are
they still serving that purpose? Or have our awards become nothing
more than a popularity contest


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Christopher Morley in the Twenty-first Century

I have on hand a copy of Christopher Morley's collection of essays,  Plum Pudding. There is a particular pleasure to reading the the urbane Mr. Morley with an iPad in hand. When he writes (the book was published in 1921, remenber) that as a lunch-place the American Hotel was worth adding to the private list of those in which the Three Hours for Lunch Club was serenely happy -- "Consider corned beef hash, with fried egg, excellent, for 25 cents" -- one immediately googles the hotel's name and city... Only to discover that it was destroyed in a three-alarm fire in 1981. Many of the guests and tenants, the article states, took refuge in the Clam Broth House.

Which turns out to have been a cultural landmark of Hoboken since the dawn of the Twentieth Century, when it was a bar and restaurant for dock workers. The floor was covered with sawdust and discarded clam shells, and there was an enormous coffee urn at the bar dispensing free clam broth. The beer was served ice cold.

All of the above was nostalgically recalled in the comments section under an article about how the Clam Broth House had been rehabbed, sold, and reopened as a Biggie's Clam Bar. The writer also reminisced that through the 1970s, a holdover of Victorian standards, women were allowed in the restaurant but not in the bar.

Some people can get nostalgic about ANYthing.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Guess What Made the Kirkus Best Fiction List!


I received some pleasant news today.  Chasing the Phoenix is one of eleven books on the Kirkus Reviews list of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015. Which apparently automatically also put it onto their list of the 100 Best Fiction Books of 2015. Because there it is as well.

So I am happy for me and hope you are too.

You can see the long list starting here. You can read the genre list here. And you can read Kirkus's original review here.

Somewhere in the back of my head, however, I can hear Darger and Surplus muttering to one another, trying to work up a scheme to turn this to their advantage.

Oh, and...

Congratulations are due to the others on the science fiction and fantasy list: Carolyn Ives Gilman, Scott Hawkins, C. A. Higgins, Ann Leckie, Cixin Liu (and translator Joel Martinsen), China MiƩville, Natasha Pulley, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, and Robert Charles Wilson.

Doesn't that list of names make you want to take the afternoon off and do nothing but read? I honestly think you should. Tell your boss that I said it was okay.


Friday, November 13, 2015

This Rich Life

I put in a long day finishing up various small projects and then went into town to see my tailor this afternoon. Traffic was with us, so Marianne had time to drop into Blick's, the only art supply store in the world located on the site of Thomas Eakins's studio, to pick up some book binding supplies. Later, on the way to the Pen & Pencil Club, to confab with Gardner Dozois and other cronies, we saw the First City Troop, in full regalia waiting outside the Union League for some event, while a very elegant man, who was surely a high functionary of the League stood on the steps regarding their horses with dismay. Up and down Broad Street colored lights were playing on the building facades.

It's a rich life we lead and a strange world we live it in. Let's keep it that way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Writer's Melancholy


Last night, leaving through a collection of Cavafy's poetry, I came upon these lines:

I attend to my work and I love it.
But today the languor of composition disheartens me.
The day has affected me. Its face
is deepening dark. It continues to blow and rain.
I would sooner see than speak...

There is no artist who does not recognize the sensation being documented. It comes periodically, sometimes without any identifiable source. But if you're going to make a living creating things, it's something you've got to get used to.

Monday, I could not think of a thing worth blogging about. Nor did I feel any need. Tuesday was more of the same.  Today, however...

Today, for the third day in a row, I felt not the least desire to do anything at all with words.  So I put together an interview I had promised to turn in by Sunday. Then I finished and polished three flash fictions for Dragonstairs Press and did a great deal of revision and rephrasing on the fourth. Then I cobbled together this post.

Writers are moody cattle, God wot. But when you make a living at this stuff, periodically you've juste got to pull yourself out of the muck of despond and get on with things.

This was, for those who are paying attention, a lesson aimed at gonnabe writers. If you missed the point, then maybe you don't want to get into the business.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Ask Unca Mike


Science fiction and fantasy writers are a group are extraordinarily generous with advice to new writers. A moment's thought, however, reveals that this is just encouraging talented young people to occupy the publishing niches and win the awards that would otherwise go to to us Old Hands. Ask Unca Mike is an attempt to rectify this deplorable situation.


 Dear Unca Mike,

    How can one make one's manuscript more attention-getting to an editor? In the old days,. Asimov and Heinlein could buy typewriter ribbons that were half-red and half-black so they could add a bit of punch to their manuscripts with whole sentences typed in red. What can an unpublished writer do these days to get noticed?


                                                    Black Ink, White Paper

Given how many options there are on pretty much any word processing program for FoNt and COLOR, to say nothing of SIZE, it  would seem at first blush hat you're not even trying. When one considers how many magazines today are accepting virtual submissions., it seems a given that writers are perking up their submissions with clip art, kitten gifs, and dancing paper clips. So you're probably expecting me to advise ladling your submission with lots and lots of porn.

But, keeping in mind the purpose of this column, I'll simply observe that the very best way to catch an editor's attention is by writing a crisp, involving story with good science and a fresh idea that nobody's ever seen before.

Because if that doesn't paralyze you with fear, nothing will.

If you have a question for Unca Mike you can post it below. Or write to AskUncaMike ("at" sign) I'll respond to those I have the best answers for.

Ask Unca Mike appears here on Fridays.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mr. Hot Sex & Ms Voluptuous

Meanwhile, over in the Times Literary Supplement, critical superstar Mary Beard has found a naughty Roman tombstone... or has she?

Her account begins:

Another of my favourite Roman inscriptions, which I have mentioned before and talked about at Bard, is what may be the tombstone of a couple, known for business purposes (one presumes) as Calidius Eroticus and Fannia Voluptas. All those names are individually well attested at Rome, but together they roughly equal Mr Hot Sex and Mrs Gorgeous (though Fannia in Latin does not mean what you might imagine).  So it seems highly unlikely that they were the names the couple were born with, but the one’s they took to brand their bar or cheap lodging house.

You can read the whole thing here.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Watching the Aged Magician (on Science Fiction "Classics")


I don't cite John Scalzi's blog much because... well, his blog readership is phenomenal, so I presume that any of my own blog's readers who are interested in anything he has to say have already checked it out.

But he had an eminently reasonable essay yesterday on the classics of science fiction and why he doesn't expect the young to be reading them. Essentially, he said that it shouldn't surprise anyone that young people would prefer books written specifically for them, rather than for their grandparents. That kids want their own books, their own futures, their own amusements. That bookstore shelves are only so long. And that a lot of today's science fiction is as good as any of the classics, so they're not necessarily missing anything.

All true, of course, and sweetly sensible. But I wanted to add two thoughts.

The first is that we habitually talk about the "classics" of science fiction, but of course they're no such thing. Classics are works that have stood the test of centuries. Science fiction was, as Barry Malzberg has observed, a single-generation invention, the creation of men and women who not so long ago were alive and getting plowed at science fiction conventions. When they originally used the term, it was with a mixture of defiance and irony -- chin forward and tongue in cheek.

The disregard of the young is just an early phase of the testing of science fiction's best books o see which will really turn out to be classics.

The second thought is that, while young readers can ignore the classics, young writers do so at their own risk. Decades ago, a friend who was an amateur magician took me to see Baltimore's oldest stage magician, a classic ham whose hands had begun to tremble, whose vision was weak, and whose reflexes were much slower than they used to be.He couldn't hide the mechanics of his tricks like he used to. By watching him at show after show, my friend was learning, one trick at a time, how they were done.

Yeah, a lot of the "classic" SF is showing its age. But that only means that the tricks are easier to see, to imitate, and to learn from. I don't think that A. E. Van Vogt is going to have much of a readership a thousand years from now. But that doesn't mean he isn't worth learning from. I once wrote a story playing off of his classic "Recruiting Station" and won a Hugo for it when all I was trying to do was learn how he got his effects. Writers who are reading nobody older than, say, me are missing a great deal of what's going on under the surface.

You can read Scalzi's post (if you haven't already) here.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Last Fallen Leaf


All things come to an end and so...