Wednesday, June 29, 2016

To Fund The Autumnal City


Over at Indiegogo, Kenneth James is raising money to fund the journals of Samuel R. Delany. Chip is not only one of the most significant writers of modern science fiction, second in his influence only to Robert A. Heinlein, and he had the rare good fortune of being recognized as an important writer at a very early age. So his papers have been carefully conserved.

In all, there will be at least five volumes. Volume one, In Search of Silence, is already complete and will be published by Wesleyan University Press at the end of the year. It cover's Delany's teenage years through the end of the Sixties,when he established himself as an important writer. Volume two, Autumnal City, covers the Seventies, the era of Dahlgren, Trouble on Titan, and Tales of Nevèrÿon.

If you're feeling like a patron of the literary arts, you could scarcely sink your money into a more worthy cause. Also, these are books I want to read.

You can find the Indiegogo page, with tons and tons of info, here.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Good News For Everyone Who Happens To Be Me!


I got a starred review from Publishers Weekly! Or, rather, my upcoming Tachyon Publications collection Not So Much, Said the Cat got a starred review.

For a writer, this is a big deal, so I'm extremely happy about it.

Here it is in its entirety:

 Multiple Hugo Award–winner Swanwick (Chasing the Phoenix) returns with this superb collection of stories published between 2008 and 2014. Ranging across the various subgenres of fantasy and science fiction, the volume includes the Hugo-winning “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled...,” in which a space suit AI narrates how its owner escaped from a conquered alien metropolis with a burden of incalculable value. Other stories of note are “The Man in Grey,” whose title character is one of reality’s stage managers, in charge of making sure that the props and sets are in place for the 50,000 people who really exist in our universe, all others being mere illusion; “Tawny Petticoats,” in which swindlers Darger and Surplus are taken in by the dauntingly beautiful title character; and “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” in which two poor little rich girls living on a grim colonial world discover their true alien heritage. Each of these 17 stories is a gem, beautifully written, expertly plotted, with brilliantly developed characters. This is as good as short speculative fiction gets.

And here's the blurb that will most likely go on the book:

Each of these 17 stories is a gem, beautifully written, expertly plotted, with brilliantly developed characters. This is as good as short speculative fiction gets.-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
So, yes, I am very, very happy about this.

And I should explain . . .

Actually, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" didn't win a Hugo. It was nominated but lost to Ted Chiang's story, "Exhalation." Over the years, I'd had remarkably good fortune in the stories I've lost to. Octavia Butler's "Blood Child" was another one I wasn't embarrassed to lose to.

And I should also apologize . . .

No, I didn't manage to blog yesterday. Mea culpa. It's summer and it's hot and I was lazy. I'll do my very best to get back on schedule tomorrow.

Above: "It's da bomb!" says Beelzebub, the promotional cat. Shown here in Baltimore sitting atop an unexploded shell that fell into Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Day Lafferty Autographed My Book Twice


Yesterday, Andrew Mass came to the house to interview me for a documentary film he's making about R. A. Lafferty. It went well, I think. But afterward, it occurred to me that I had one small story about Lafferty that I've never committed to print. So here it is.

Forty years ago, I attended my first Worldcon -- MidAmeriCon in Kansas City. Where my motley crew of friends brought things like electric guitars and amps, the Starship Troopers war game, an industrial laser, and so on, I carried with me a single book, a hardcover of Lafferty's Does Anyone Else Have Anything Further to Add? Of all the writers present (pretty much everyone in the SF world), his was the autograph I most desired.

I must have been ignorant of the fact that there were scheduled autograph sessions because i carried the book around with me, hoping I would see the man. And I did! He was talking to Silverberg or Asimov or some other giant of the field, so I stood nearby and in a break in the conversation asked if he would sign my book.

Lafferty took the book, flipped to the title page, then flipped two pages back and signed the blank end-paer. I thanked the man and floated away.

A couple of my friends were nearby and, laughing, took the book from me and opened it to the title page. There was Lafferty's autograph a second time, inscribed to me. It was a surreal moment.

My friends, it turned out, had earlier taken my book while I was sleeping, gotten the autograph, and then not told me. As a practical joke, you see. But it hadn't quite worked out the way they'd thought it would because, on seeing his signature, Lafferty had simply found another page to sign.

It was a kindly act, not calling me out for asking him to sign a book that was already signed. Lafferty was a true gent.

Immediately above: R. A. Lafferty's second autograph.


Monday, June 20, 2016

It's A Wonderful Life


What an astonishing world we live in! The Hendricks Gin Blimp just flew over our neighborhood. It's emblazoned with the name of the product and the all-seeing eye of the Illuminati.

The American Martini Laboratory has tested Hendricks and ruled that it is not a great Martini gin. But it is miraculously good in a gin-and-tonic. So it looks like we'll be having gin-and-tonics at the cocktail hour tonight.

Above: My phone camera doesn't have the resolution, so I swiped this image from the Web. You can find the original at:


Friday, June 17, 2016

Introducing Liu Cixin


The industrious Carl Slaughter has published an interview with Chinese SF superstar Liu Cixin (or, as his name is rendered in English translation, Cixin Liu) over in File 770. It is emblematic of how difficult it is for Americans to receive news of overseas SF that this interview took two long years, several intermediaries and more than one translator to get here. (The current version is by, one almost says "of course," Ken Liu, whose translations have become the gold standard for Chinese SF.)

Liu Cixin is best known for The Three-Body Problem, volume one of a hard-SF trilogy of the same name, which was the first science fiction novel to become a mainstream best-seller in China, and the first translated work to the the Hugo Award. More significant, I feel, is the fact that his fellow science fiction writers in China are in awe of his work. I'm a big fan of this guy.

Here's an excerpt from the interview:

 Since the 80s, China has been introduced to a large amount of foreign (mainly English) science fiction.  Some influential American science fiction has been translated and published in China.  The publication cycle has been greatly shortened.  For example, when stories win a Hugo/Nebula, they are soon after published in China.  Foreign publishing in China is still in infancy and quantity is tiny.  “The Three Body Problem” is the only Chinese science fiction novel published in English.  It won a Hugo.  Some Chinese writers have appeared in western magazines and websites.  There are 2 Chinese writers published in Nature.  In my opinion, science fiction is the most global literature because it deals with issues relevant to all races.  So I prefer English speaking science fiction fans read my novel because it’s science fiction, not because it’s “Chinese” science fiction.

You can read the entire interview here.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Working Hard and Hardly Working


One of the central ironies of a writer's life is that you look the least productive when you're working the hardest. And vice versa. When a new novel comes out, it represents work that was completed perhaps a year earlier. But it sure makes you look good. Conversely, when you're working hardest, there's nothing new coming out and you appear to be stuck somewhere between lazy and indolent.

Right now, on the stands... pretty much nothing. But I'm working very hard on The Iron Dragon's Mother. And I've got a number of lesser but very cool projects in the pipeline, which will be coming out at irregular intervals over the coming year. So I'm busy as can be.

Most of these projects I can't mention, for various reasons. But I will say that The Universe Box Project over at Marianne's Dragonstairs Press moves steadily toward completion, and that when it is done, it will be something rare and wonderful.

Oh, yeah, and my newest short fiction collection, Not So Much, Said the Cat should be on the stands in not terribly long. But that's the other side of the coin. It contains seventeen stories, written over the course of several years. So its appearance will not indicate that I am being industrious -- just that I was so, once upon a time.

Above: The shelves where I keep copies of all my publications. They filled up long ago, and everything since is scattered about in shelves and boxes elsewhere in the house.


Monday, June 13, 2016

The Song of the Vikings


I just finished reading Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown.  What a terrific book! For all my obsession with mythology, I had never looked into the author of the Edda, of Heimskringla, and of so much more. So I was astonished to discover how much is known about the life of Snorri Sturluson, the man who wrote down most of what we know about the Norse gods.

Snorri, it turns out, was both the richest and the most powerful man in Iceland. He was a wily merchant and an ambitious politician in an age when it was pretty much a given that such a man would die by violence. It seems almost unfair that he should also be the greatest poet of his time and place, but there it is. To our lasting benefit, he wrote down (and in some cases may have invented) the stories of the Norse gods at the last possible moment when it could be done. A generation after his death, the poetic tradition he worked in was dead, and the stories on their way to oblivion.

Nancy Marie Brown is the ideal guide to the life and works of Snorri. She knows the material up one side and down the other. Occasional asides provide glimpses into the enormous body of scholarship that has accrued around Icelandic literature. She has a good sense of what the casual reader will find of interest and leaves out a great deal that the specialist must surely find fascinating.

Most importantly, this woman can write. The prose is fluid, the sentences and paragraphs pleasurable, and she sails the reader through a great deal of complicated material with grace and clarity. I loved the material, but I also found a great deal of joy in the telling.

If this is your sort of thing, check it out. I'm sure you can find it on ABE but if not, then Interlibrary Loan is your friend.


Friday, June 10, 2016

Of Time and the Writer


I was contacted recently by a writer -- young, presumably, and probably as yet unpublished -- who wanted me to read and comment a story he or she had written. When I said that, for good and sufficient reasons, I couldn't, the writer demanded to know what those reasons could possibly be.

So I thought I'd explain this here.

1. You're asking someone you don't know to do unpaid work for you.

Yes, I'm capable of doing it. So too, I presume, you're capable of mowing a lawn or painting a wall or washing windows. But I wouldn't dream of asking you to do so for me. It's just not reasonable.

2. You're not the only one who wants me to read and comment on your work.

Forget, for the moment, gonnabe writers. I get requests all the time from editors to read soon-to-be published novels in the hope that I'll give them a blurb. Some of them are by good friends whom I know to be very fine writers. The rest have, at a very minimum, convinced a major publisher to invest in their careers. I can't get to a fraction as many of these as I would like. But they all have priority over a request from a complete stranger.

3. My analytic skills are valuable.

I know a young freelancer who does skilled office work for fifty dollars an hour and grunt-work for twenty an hour. So it's not immodest of me to suppose that I could get significantly more, if I wanted to put my services on the market.

4. People have paid for my literary advice, and it would be an insult to them for me to give away that same advice gratis. (Other than here on my blog, or as favors to close friends, I mean.)

I'm thinking here of the Clarion and Clarion West and Clarion South classes I've taught. Also of the recent writing seminar at Balticon 50. All the students made significant sacrifices for my advice. They'd feel pretty silly if they found out that it could have been had for just the asking.

5. You probably  don't really want my advice.

My experience with people who ask for advice is that they don't actually want it. They want to be told that their stories are perfect as they are and that I'm going to bend heaven and earth to find them an agent and a publisher. They don't think that's what they want. But their disappointment when I give them a list of ways their work fails to come up to snuff, speaks volumes.

And finally...

6. I hear time's wing'd chariot drawing near.

There is only so much time in a single life and a single career, and at my age if I have another quarter-century of productivity, I'll have beaten the actuarial tables. So right now my primary focus (aside from family and loved ones, I mean) is on creating an enduring body of work. For that I need luck, hard work, and as much of my time as I can give it.

That's why I have the above sentence taped to the top of my CRT monitor. People come to me all the time with fun projects and worthy causes. Sometimes I agree to them. Sometimes, afterward, I regret that. Not because there was anything wrong with the projects and causes. But because I've got a novel to finish, and at the moment that requires as much of my time and attention as I can give it.

And that's it. I hope I don't sound too hostile. I bear you no ill-will. I don't resent you for asking.  I hope your story is great and it sells and that it leads into a splendid career as one of the best writers of the century. Why not?

But for good and sufficient reasons, I have to turn down your request to read and comment on your story.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Coming Soon -- To A Bookstore Near You!


Here it is, the distinguished thing -- the cover for my impending new collection, Not So Much, Said the Cat. The pdf file that Tachyon sent me has blurbs (did you know that the term originally applied to jacket copy?), graphics, and typography, but you'll have to wait a bit to see them.. Most importantly, it has Beelzebub ("Not the famous one, obviously," as he says in Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown), who is one of my favorite characters ever. Why, you ask? Because he's a talking cat. In Hell! Is any other reason needed?

Of course not.

And that's all I have to share with you today. As always, I'll be on the road tomorrow, and if I want to waste all of Thursday at the beach, I'd better get a lot of work done today.

And stay tuned...

Recently, a young writer, one I didn't know, asked me to look at and critique their story. I said that for very good reasons I couldn't, and said stranger demanded to know what those reasons were.

So on Friday, I'll spell out my reasons. Be there or be square. As we used to say in my youth, just before a pick-up mastodon hunt.


Monday, June 6, 2016

R. A. Lafferty and the New Wave


Laffcon 1 was held in the Mercer County Library in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on Saturday. Something like forty people attended, almost all of them exceptionally knowledgable on the subject of the life and works of R. A. Lafferty.

It's hard to say what was the best part of the day.  Possibly the presentation (by Gregorio Montejo, I think; my notes are a mess) on "Lafferty and the Visual Arts," which, on the strength of a single closet door, all that survives of Lafferty's collage art, made the case for Lafferty as an outsider artist. (Albeit not your usual outsider artist.) Or maybe Andrew Mass's early selection from the documentary movie he's making about Lafferty. It was heartening to see how much was being done to preserve the memory of the man and his works, and how high the quality of the work was.

The chief item I was on was a panel on "Lafferty and the New Wave." We didn't settle the question of exactly what Ray's relationship with the New Wave was then. But on reflection, I decided that it was relatively -- for Lafferty, anyway -- straightforward.

Ray definitely didn't identify himself with the New Wave and disliked most of the work published under that heading. But most of his readership did identify him with it. So how did an extremely religious autodidact and self-characterized grumpy old man (I should mention that everybody who met him thought he was very sweet) find himself in that position?

Context is all. The New Wave coincided roughly with what we like to call "the Sixties," a period which, confusingly enough, began midway through the decade and extended well into the Seventies. There was, among the young, a widespread rejection of old values, old ideas, and old ways of doing things. People were looking for new ideas, new ways of seeing things, new ways of doing things. A lot of what the New Wave writers were up to was trying to provide exactly those. And also new ways of telling stories.

Well, it turns out that new ideas and new ways of telling stories are pretty rare. But Lafferty had both. So the seekers found him. And even after he carefully and repeatedly explained that not only was he not a member of the Counterculture (as it was then called) but thought its very existence was evil, they continued to revere him.

Because he was the real thing. We were all looking for visions and he was a visionary. That was, and is, far more important than whether he had the same politics as his readers.


Friday, June 3, 2016

Everything That's Wrong With Your Story -- Sight Unseen


Last weekend, at Balticon, I got into a discussion with Connie Willis about teaching new writers. She told of the time she addressed a group of such and said, "I'm going to tell you everything that's wrong with your stories."

They all eagerly began pulling out typescripts. But Connie stopped them, saying, "No, I don't need to see them. Because you all make the same mistakes." And proceeded to run down the list of Universal Newbie Mistakes.

Then Connie laughed and said, "Boy, I never did that again."

We didn't discuss what those mistakes were, because anybody with experience teaching already knows. But it occurred to me that it might benefit some gonnabe writers if I spelled out the mistakes you're making that are so obvious that I don't even have to look at your story to know you're making them.

1. Starting before the beginning of the story.

The first thing I do with a student story is to cross out all the scene-setting that new writers think is necessary before the story can begin. Somewhere on page 3 or page 8 or page 32, I'll finally write: BEGIN HERE.

2. Overwriting.

Even after that opening has been pruned, up to half the words in your story are unnecessary. Once you start describing something you keep on describing it and describing it and describing it until there are so many words in the way it's impossible to see.

Poul Anderson observed that three evocations of the senses are sufficient to make any scene vivid. A man walking along the beach hears the crash of waves and cries of gulls. He smells the salt air. He feels the seaweed popping underfoot. You've nailed it. No need to go on describing the beach. Move on to what's happening.

Similarly, you only need two well-chosen details to bring a locale to life. In John Cheever's notebooks, he described a Sunday morning when he was hung-over and in a friend's living room, while the friend chain-smoked and talked about his impending divorce and the attendant heartbreak. Cheever wondered how to capture the scene on paper. His glance kept going from the ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts to the agonizingly blue sky outside the picture window. Blue sky, ashtray. Ashtray, blue sky. Nothing more is needed.

3. Not trusting the reader.

Technically, number 2 belongs under this heading, but I thought that it needed spelling out. The new writer is prone to lecturing, hectoring, underlining, repetition, condescending, and above all repetition simply because he or she does not trust the reader to "get it."

Your readers are on your side. They want your story to be good. And they're surprisingly perceptive -- chiefly because they've read a lot of fiction before yours. You can trust them.

Those rare exceptions who are complete idiots? Forget 'em. You can't win them over anyway.

4. Being afraid of emotion.

Yes, emotions -- particularly negative emotions -- can be scary. Embarrassing too. But they're a good part of the reason we read fiction. If the logic of your story insists that your protagonist would throw herself in front of a train, then it's a violence to the story not to let her do so. Tolstoy understood this. So should you.

5. Having too few characters.

Your characters live in human society. The reader cannot see that society without a representative sampling of its citizenry. And your protagonist needs to express a variety of emotions in order to feel well-rounded.

Also -- and I speak from experience here -- while it's possible to write a story with three characters, which is usually considered the minimum, or even fewer, which usually involves the environment serving as an uncredited character -- pulling it off is hard work. Not many new writers have the craft to do that.

6. Letting the ending trail off.

When the story's over, it's over. Get off the stage. You don't need to let everybody know what came next or how the characters felt about it. You don't have to end with the story's climax. But what comes after shouldn't sap away all the energy of the climax.

7. Not having a good ending.

Back when I was on the Nebula Jury, which is a long story and one I won't go into here, I read pretty close to all the genre short fiction published over several years. From this, I learned two things: First, that no story that starts out badly ever turns into a good story later. Second, that nine times out of ten, when a story that starts out well turns out badly, it happens in the final pages.

This set of failings applies to pretty much all writers, whatever they're trying to accomplish. But there's one that's specific to writers of fantasy and science friction and that's this: 8. Your ideas are too small and derivative.

But that's a big topic and one I'll tackle some other day.


And as always...

I'm on the road again. Tomorrow I'll be at the Mercer County Library in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for the very first Laffcon. This celebration of the life and work of R. A. Lafferty is a one-day free event, and will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The doors open at 9:30.

Lafferty was the single most original science fiction writer ever -- and I don't make that claim lightly. It promises to be a fun day. If you're in the area, you should consider attending.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

And The Good News Keeps Coming!


(Since today's blog post was posted yesterday, this should be considered Thursday's blog post posted a day early.)

I've just learned that my forthcoming collection, "Not So Much," Said the Cat, has received a starred Kirkus review. For those not in the know, that's a very big deal among us ink-stained wretches.

Here's a small excerpt from the review:

Versatility, craftsmanship, a dollop of weird, and a delightfully askew sense of humor are key to the 17 pieces here, all of which appeared between 2008 and 2014, together with an introduction that illuminates the contents without revealing too much.

The reviewer also said that I was "one of a handful of writers whose short pieces are as impressive as their novels."

I won't pretend this doesn't make me happy.

You can read the entire review here.