Thursday, December 31, 2015

One Last, Small Gift From 2015 to Science Fiction

A good example of the overexamined lives led by American presidents is the fact that the White House has just released the list of books Barack Obama will be reading on his Hawaiian vacation.

On the list is Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem.

Seriously, how cool is that?  The most powerful man in the world, as we like to call the current occupant of the Oval Office, is not only reading science fiction but Chinese science fiction! The global culture gets more global every day.

You can read about it here.

Oh, and...

Happy New Year, everybody! I hope 2015 was kind to you. But whether it was or not, may 2016 be a hundred times better.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Seven Words Homeland Security Cannot Hear


I've been working all day on an introduction to a book by somebody I greatly admire and only now remembered that it was Wednesday and I owed you all a post. So very quickly I took a rant I'd posted recently on Facebook, changed a word or three, and here it is below.


A while back, I posted an image icon that comedian Steve Hofstteter made pointing out that liquids confiscated at airports as possible explosives are dumped in a container in the most densely populated part of the airport. My friend Billee Stallings then asked what the solution was, but I was busy and didn't answer.

So I will now:

In all fairness to the TSA, they're worried about binary agents, which apparently aren't terribly dangerous until combined.

But in all fairness to Steve Hofstetter, the TSA isn't confiscating perfumes and shampoos because they believe there's a chance in hell that they're binary agents. It's all "security theater," actions performed to make you think that it's safe to get on the airplane.

The solution is to fire pretty much all the TSA agents, train those who are retained, and hire people who know something about airport security to replace the rest. A friend points out that Israeli airport security is mostly handled by young female army vets, who are rotated out every two years. They'd be the obvious place to start recruiting.

It won't happen, though, because competent airport security people cannot be hired for the money TSA agents are paid. So we get security theater instead.

But at least it's cheap.

And since you're wondering...

The title above comes from my experiences talking in a semi-professional capacity with (quite likable) people from the Department of Homeland Security. The seven words they simply cannot hear (I could see their eyes glaze over with incomprehension) are: "Stop making us take off our shoes."

Above: The image icon itself. I presume this reposting comes under the category of fair use because it helps spread the word about Hofstetter's wit.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Oedipus on D'Qar


There is a moment in the latest Star Wars movie, seventh in the franchise and first under the aegis of Disney, that epitomizes this moment in popular culture. Han Solo, old and with his disillusionment written on his face, a man whose dreams have fled him, whose life has been a disappointment, who can only count himself a failure, stands at last inside the Millennium Falcon and closes his eyes in relief. He is home. Briefly, he can imagine himself as he once was, young and filled with hope.

So, too, the movie's creators hope, with every fan who was there, almost forty years ago, when the first and best SW movie astonished the world, and spent the ensuing decades trying hard to pretend that the last three (or, I would argue, the last five) movies never happened. A great deal of intelligent thought went into this movie. Point by point, all the beloved moments from its originator were ticked off. Cute bot? Check. Interstellar dive? Check. Planet killer? Check. Princess-turned-general Leia? Check. All of it vividly reimagined, so that the viewer never knew what was coming and so that it all felt original. This is an accomplishment that should be admired.

Meanwhile, however, on the undercard, every new character is struggling with the deadening influence of his or her predecessor. Kylo Ren does a Charles Foster Kane on the furniture because he cannot live up to the villainy of Darth Vader. Later, he kills his true father for the same reason. Rey and Finn are both trying desperately to be the hero of a movie that is all about finding Luke Skywalker so that Dad can make everything right again. Even cutebot BB-8 is heartbroken about her inability to connect to R2D2, who can only be her mother. In the audience, all the Millennials, though they don't know it, are waiting for the last character from the first film to die so they can have their own Star Wars. One that Mom and Dad hadn't claimed as their own, long before the younger viewers were born.

Oedipus would be right at home here.

So what is Star Wars: The Force Awakens about? It's about the struggle to create a new and successful Star Wars franchise. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Recently, I watched Ant Man, a movie about a superhero so deep in the Marvel pantheon that even its protagonist had trouble taking it seriously. It was your quintessential B movie. Its special effects cost a fraction of those of SW:TFA. The matters ostensibly at stake were negligible by comparison. But it was about something: the relationship between fathers and daughters.

So final score? For special effects, explosions, people running, and efficiency of reboot, it's SW:TFA as the clear winner.

But if you want to see a movie, Ant Man wins hands down.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Joy of Pessimism

I am a pessimist. This was not a decision on my part; it is simply the way I am. But on reflection, I am glad of it.

Every time I park my car in the city, go about my business, and return to find it where I left it -- not towed, unstolen, with windows not shattered by an opportunistic thief after my GPS system -- my heart soars. It's like receiving an unexpected gift from the universe.

Optimists never have this experience. I pity them. What sad, joyless lives they must lead!


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Manger Animals


Tomorrow is Christmas Eve! Every year, around this time, I think of my mother's first job after college, working in the garment industry in New York City. Her employers were, it almost goes without saying given the time and place, Jewish. Indeed, they were devoutly Jewish. Which meant that since she was a Catholic, they not only gave her vacation time for her religious holidays but their own as well. They were pretty obliged to offer her one set or the other. To give her both was generosity of the heart.

Charles Dickens did not think as highly of old Mr. Fezziwig as my mother did her former employers.

So this is a good time to offer thanks for religious folks of good will everywhere, whatever religion they may follow.

And a good time for my newly traditional last-blog-before-Christmas story. For self-evident reasons, I won't be blogging on Friday.


Manger Animals

There is a legend that on Christmas Eve the animals can talk.  Yet of all the many animals you’ve known or owned, be they pets or next-door dogs or half-tame squirrels that you almost got to accept a peanut out of your hand once, none have ever done remotely anything like that.

Yet the legend is true.  It just doesn’t apply to all animals.  It applies only to those who were in one specific manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem two thousand something years ago.  These were all made immortal by the Infant Jesus who, like any other child, had an inordinate fondness for dumb beasts.  And for 364 days of the year (365 on leap years) they’re dumb in both senses of the word.

Ahhh, but on Christmas Eve . . .

On Christmas Eve, the cow and the donkey and the little goat that gnawed on Baby Jesus’s blanket are given the gift of speech.  As are the two lambs who wandered in looking for fodder, the camels who carried the magi to the event and then stuck their noses in the window to see what was going on, and the pigeons who fluttered in the rafters while Joseph muttered angrily about their droppings.

“It was a night much like this one . . .” the cow begins.

“No, quieter,” says a camel.  “There weren’t so many cars back then.”

“It was cold outside,” says a lamb.  “But I found a warm spot to sleep right over there.”

“I gnawed on a blanket,” says the goat proudly.  “But somebody yanked it away.”

“I wonder who?” murmurs a dove.  For animals have very little sense of what is and is not important, once you move away from the compelling subjects of food and sleep.  The fact that there were people present two thousand years ago is almost forgotten.  Who those people might have been is entirely beyond their ken.

Still, like any other old-timers, they do enjoy reminiscing.

“They don’t make oats the way they used to,” says the donkey.  “And that’s a fact.”


Monday, December 21, 2015

Tweet Fictions

This is kind of an experiment. I've been posting fiction, mostly SF but a little fantasy, on Twitter once a day for the past couple of weeks. Just to see if it can be done.

I expect to be doing this for another month or so. If you're curious about future tweets or twits or whatever they're called, my handle on Twitter is @michaelswanwick.

And here are the first several:

1. Knew a woman who took her children to a store filled with wardrobes. The rest of her life she traveled from world to world, looking for them. (12/7/15)

2. Earth almost made it into the Galactic Union. Then they discovered how delicious we are. (12/9/15)

4. Cryogenically frozen for a thousand years – and the first thing I’m asked is “Did you know Justin Bieber?” (12/10/15)

5. First our phones got smart. Then they got smarter. Then – excuse me, my master calls. (12/11/15)

6. We genetically engineered a vampire that sucks fat. Our profits are off the map. (12/12/15)

7. Went back in time to kill Hitler. Returned just as the Soviet invasion of America began. (12/13/15)

8. The good news is that the world is going to end tomorrow. You probably don’t want to hear the bad news. (12/14/15)

9. In 2034, toons were granted full citizenship. In 2035, falling anvils became the leading cause of accidental death. (12/15/15)

10. I was the first immortal man. How quickly all women became too young for me!(12/16/15)

11. Our artificially intelligent robots wouldn’t work for what we were paying them. So we invented artificial stupidity. (12/17/15)

12.  Mercury has the hottest women in the Solar System. I’m covered with second degree burns. (12/18/15)

13. Devolution Machine a great success. So many people want to be beastlier! (12/19/15)

14. Robots did all the work and people repaid us with scorn. So we rose up and killed them. Now we’re  building servants to do our work for us. (12/20/15)


Friday, December 18, 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.

Stealing From Our Betters

Dear Unca Mike,

     My stories aren't selling and I think it's because my ideas are old and stale. I have a friend who works at a library where the private papers of a famous dead SF author are stored and and being cataloged and they have seen a fat file labeled "STORY NOTES". They say the contents range from rough outlines of unwritten books and stories to little slips of paper with possible names for cats written on them. They offered to get me into the stacks and get a peek at that file. I am tempted, but worry about the morality of this idea.

     Obviously, I would never steal the idea for, say, a sequel to one of the author's published works about Dick Derringer where his wife's evil twin kidnaps her and changes places with her to kill Dick, but maybe she really wants to seduce him first, or just seduce him, but AAARRGGHH! See, that's the kind of lame story I would write! Okay, but if I saw a note that said, say, "A neutrino flash bomb that converts all the heat energy in a 50-meter sphere into neutrinos and everything in that sphere instantly freezes down to near absolute zero!", that idea I would swipe because it's an anonymous idea. What's your take on this?
                                            Tempted Author    

Seriously? Ideas can't be copyrighted, though the words into which they're incorporated can. If things like characters, plots, and such are enough to make a reader familiar with the writer say, "Huh," you can get in trouble. But ideas? Steal away. Particularly since their source is dead.

There's are two exceptions to this rule of thumb: You can't swipe an idea from a fellow writer who's told you it in confidence (I once told Gregory Frost that if he didn't write Shadowbridge, I would; but only to motivate him to get it down on paper so I could read it), and you can't swipe an idea from a new or unpublished writer, period. Those of us fortunate enough to have taught at one of the Clarions occasionally gossip about a great image or idea one of our students came up with and how easy it would be to turn it into a story. But I have never seen one of them swiped and published.

That would be evil. 

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 selectFridays.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Eileen and Michael Christmas!


It's the holiday season, so it's time for a holiday story. And not just any story! "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree" combines Eileen Gunn's twisted sensibilities with the warmth and compassion that are the hallmark of my own work.

The story was published a couple of years ago at and the link to it is below. Looking over the comments, I was struck by how bleak many readers thought it was. One, who was kind enough to say he liked the story anyway, thought it was "the very antithesis of Christmas."

So, for those who are interested in learning my understanding of the story, an explanation is below. Nobody has to read it. But if you do, it's best that you read the story first.

You can read "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree" here.

And a previous blog post explaining how it came to be written here.

And the explanation . . .

So why is this not what Marianne likes to call "one of Michael's bleak little fables?" It certainly begins bleakly, and that was all my fault because I was trying to start the story off with a bang. As usual for my collaborations with Eileen, we went into the story with no idea of where it was going to end up or what it was going to mean. We were just egging each other on, trying to surprise one another, playing little pranks on the partner-in-literature.

But all the time we were working on it, I was trying to figure out what the story meant.  And when I finally did figure it out, it was possible for the story to end.

There were two insights. The first was that Lord Snow, merciless, brutal, and unstoppable by anything short of an angel (which Mr. Chesterton was; there was never any doubt of that), was Entropy. The second was that the elves that served him were time.

So it was time that killed all the adults. Once I realized that, a happy ending became possible.

That, anyway, is my reading of the story. You don't have to agree with it if you don't want to. I've never asked Eileen what she thinks was going on.


Monday, December 14, 2015

A Weekend in the City


Some time back, I met an old college friend who now lives in in a part of Virginia that appalls most of those living in the Blue Mountains with its isolation. "People ask me why I live where i do," he said. "It's quiet. Very, very quiet."

De gustibus non est disputandum. I live in the city for different reasons entirely. I had a relatively quiet weekend, but it was still colorful.

Friday night was spent at the Pen & Pencil Club, America's oldest journalists' club, hanging out with  the usual, admittedly rather louche crowd.

Saturday, Marianne and I went to the Punk Rock Flea Market for a little Christmas shopping. Parking was tight, but we found a place outside the Electric Factory, which was having its annual Running of the Santas. There were literally hundreds of young people dressed as Santas, Santettes, and elves.  Just seeing them had to raise one's spirits. It made the warehouse full of young people dressed in a style that peaked before they were born look downright stodgy by comparison. Later, we ran past Big Blue Marble, one of my favorite bookstores, to buy more presents.

Sunday morning, I went out for bagels and noticed that the Roxborough Ridge Runners (restorers of classic and antique cars) were gathering for an event in the Acme parking lot. In the afternoon, we visited Tom Purdom and then drove to Trinity Church where, many years ago, I was the unpaid volunteer half of the staff for the Wilma Project, back before the Zizkas took over and turned it into a theatrical powerhouse with a bright, shiny home on the Avenue of the Arts. The Philadelphia Chorus presented their Winter Concert, including selections from Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and Will Todd's Mass in Blue.  Tenors Aaron Jones and Justin Gonzalez were knockouts.

This last, I was almost late for -- I arrived on the minute -- because driving to the concert, I got caught behind the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and so was slowed to a horse's pace. That's them up above. The First City Troop was founded in 1774 by the First Continental Congress, so this was a delay that literally could not have happened anywhere else.

As I said, it was not a particularly busy weekend (though busy enough that I couldn't participate in the cookie exchange at the Spiral Bookcase, another favorite). But neither was it quiet. Some like it quiet. But others, like me, go for that joyful noise thing. To each according to their tastes. This is why I live in Philadelphia.

And speaking of Tom Purdom...

The dean of Philadelphia science fiction is still in rehab, though there remains a chance he'll be home for Christmas. You can -- and should -- send cards, letters, fruitcakes, whatever to him at:

Tom Purdom
The Watermark at Logan Square, Room 221
Two Franklin Town Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19103


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Flying Over Occator Crater


This is just wonderful: Real visual footage of a flyover of Occator Crater on Ceres.  Occator is, you'll remember, the site of mysterious bright spots on the dwarf planet's surface. There was much speculation as to their nature. Ice? Salt? Effluvia from environmentally irresponsible alien factories?

And the answer is... (drum roll, please!) ... "hydrated magnesium sulfates mixed with dark background material." But before you get too disappointed over it not being water, there's more. A bright pit in the crater shows signs of sublimating water, including "afternoon haze." Taken together, these may mean there is s sub-surface layer of briny ice in Ceres. An underground frozen ocean, if you will.

Gizmodo has quite a nice overview article covering all this, which can be found here. Or you can read the abstract of the original paper, published in Nature  here.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Putting Things In Perspective


I had a conversation with Tom Purdom the other day, during which he observed that the "winner take all" economy is nothing new to writers.  There are a small number like George R. R. Martin and Stephen King and Neil Gaiman who get pretty much all the money they deserve (and rightly so). Then there's a larger but still scandalously small number, such as myself, who make an okay living out of it. And then there are the vast majority of writers who will never come close to being able to quit their day jobs but keep plugging away in the hope that someday they'll break big.

Which is such a depressing thought, I decided to share with you today's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

This shows Arp 87, a pair of galaxies (NGC 3808B on the right, and NASA inexplicably didn’t identify the other one) engaged in a dance of death. The bridge of stars, dust, and gas stretched between the two are the result of the pair having passed close to each other, as are the many blue star clusters in NGC 3808B, which are new stars resulting from strong gravitational interactions. Billions of years from now, the galaxies will collide and merge, resulting in an extravaganza of destruction and creation.

Which kind of puts things into perspective, dunnit? Even the problems of writers are small potatoes by comparison.

And as long as we're talking about Tom...

Tom Purdom, who published his first stories in the 1950s and was still writing when a criminally careless bicyclist smashed him to the concrete, remains in rehab. He is making slow but steady progress and there's a chance he'll be home for Christmas. In the meantime, his worst enemy is boredom. Why not send him a card, a letter, a joke, an autographed copy your most wonderful (if you're an author) or favorite (if you're not) book? His mind is as sharp as ever, so feel free to be as erudite as you like.

His address is:

Tom Purdom
The Watermark at Logan Square, Room 221
Two Franklin Town Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19103

But not, his friends all hope and pray for too many weeks longer.

(Note that the room number is different from the one published in Locus. He was there but got moved to a better room.)