Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Magister Jane


The happy news of the day is that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have named  Jane Yolen the latest recipient of their Grand Master Award.

A couple of years ago, I visited Jane in Scotland. (Do you admire how subtly I slipped in the fact that we are on a first-name basis?) In the course of conversation, I mentioned how greatly I admired and envied her prolific output -- literally hundreds of books.

"Yes, but your books are all full-length novels," she said. "A lot of mine are very short."

Knowing something about how difficult very short every-word-matters works can be, I asked, "How many drafts does something like Owl Moon take?"

"Well... dozens, sometimes hundreds."

"I do not withdraw my admiration."

Grand Master is the highest accolade our field has to offer, and one that, for quality of prose and caliber of storytelling, Magister Jane well deserves. That she is also prolific is icing on the cake.

Did I mention that she's prolific? All my heroes are hard workers.

Above: I swiped the picture of Jane from her website. 


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

One Time Good Deal Only!


I learned just minutes ago that the e-book of my latest collection, Not So Much, Said the Cat, is on sale -- today only! -- for $1.99.

If you're an e-book reader, and you don't have a copy already, I urge you to buy it for two reasons.

1. I'm me -- and if I'm not on my own side, who will be?

2. The collection has garnered rave reviews from pretty much everywhere. So if you've never read my short fiction and are curious to know what the fuss is about, this is a cheap way to do it.

Or, of course, you could turn to Interlibrary Loan. Brilliant invention, that.

But remember: Tuesday, November 29th only!


Monday, November 28, 2016

'Tis The Season . . .


Thanksgiving is over. The paper bats have been taken down and the colored lights have been strung on the porch. Which means that...

The Godless Atheist Christmas Card season has begun!

This grand tradition began many years ago, when the late, great Jim Turner began examining my Christmas cards to him for religious content and calling scorn on me if he found it. "Those are the Reindeer of Secular Enlightenment bringing Socialist Discourse to the world!" I would tell him.

"You're not fooling anybody, Swanwick," he would reply. "Those are fundamentalist reindeer, trying to sneak religious sentiment past me. Well, it won't work!"

Jim's keen-eyed rejection of anything religious alerted me to just how many of the cards we received during the season had no religious sentiment at all. Not one scrap! So I assembled the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family and every year this scrupulously honest and uncorruptible board of nonpareils goes over the cards looking for the perfect exemplar of the Godless Atheist Christmas Card spirit.

This year's results will be published sometime after (obviously) Christmas.

Above is a past winner by brilliant photographer (the fuzziness of the image was my doing, not hers) Beth Gwinn. I hired her to do my publicity photos, and it was money well spent. You can find her webpage here.


Friday, November 25, 2016

The Worst Possible Advice To Give A Young Writer


I was going through my old papers today, in search of a Xeroxed chapbook of constructivist poetry assembled under a pseudonym which, if a copy still exists anywhere, has a fair claim to being my first book. But while I was failing to find it, I ran my eyes over prolific evidence of what a profoundly bad writer I used to be, back in college and in the years leading up my first professional publication.

Bad titles ("Rindsbraten," for example, or "Today is the Third Day of a Five-Day Week"), bad writing, bad plots (if so they may be styled), and so on and on. Then I came across "Deirdre," a play I recall devoting enormous amounts of time to, based on the Irish legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows. I didn't bother to read any of it. I just shook my head and thought: Why on earth would someone who knew so little about the secrets of the human heart be tackling such a theme?

But I also thought: It's a damned good thing I can't go back and discourage that young writer from trying.

You should never tell a young writer to wait until they have enough experience to write something. Because trying to write something better than they're capable of writing is the only way to learn how to write better. Classes won't do it. Books won't do it. Only attempting the impossible will. It's discouraging. But it's also necessary.

End of sermon. Enjoy your Thanksgiving leftovers.

Oh, and I should also mention that...

This isn't the only worst possible advice to give a young writer -- there are scads of other worst possible advices. But it's certainly bad enough for today.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Reasons to be Grateful


It's that time of year again when we pause to reflect on all that we have and are grateful for. As a science fiction writer, I'm grateful that my books are still commercially viable after nine novels and that I'm able to make a living writing exactly what I want to write. As a reader, I'm grateful that there are so many great writers working both in and out of genre today.

I was thinking of making a science-fiction list of things to be grateful for -- all the foreign language SF being published in translation, Ursula K. Le Guin's fiction making it into the Library of America, and so on and on... but on reflection, I think I'll spare you that.

Instead, I'll simply note that I'm grateful for family and friends and health and material comfort. But most of all for life. Some time ago, I was in Russia, listening to a friend run down a series of misfortunes that had befallen him of late. But then, abruptly, he stopped and said, "But we are alive -- and this is good!"

True words, and I'm grateful for them as well.

Above: Our Thanksgiving turkey in the brining tub.


Monday, November 21, 2016

This Glitterati Life -- Part 8,732


I had a cold last week -- that's why my posts were so erratic -- but, except for residual weariness, I had recovered from it by the time Philcon rolled around.

I was on a few good panels -- one was on Russian science fiction and another was... well, I'm not sure exactly what it was. Something about what was and was not science fiction. There were some people who believed that the movie Gravity was science fiction and that J. G. Ballard's Crash was not. Me, I held the exact opposite -- that Crash dealt with the interface of humanity and technology in a speculative fashion while Gravity was simply present-day fiction with inaccurate orbital mechanics. There was a certain amount of shouting and waving of hands in the air. So a good time was had by all.

But of course the best part of any SF convention is the private conversations. There above are my fellow conversants from Saturday afternoon.  Left to right: Tom Purdom, Jennifer Gunnels, Marianne Porter, Samuel R. Delany. Excellent conversationalists all.

Sitting in the bar, of course.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Philcon Schedule

Philcon is this weekend and I've got my marching orders!  Actually, pretty light this year. So if you see me, feel free to say hi. I'll most likely have the time to chat.

Fri 7:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Three (1 hour)

[Panelists: Anna Kashina (mod), Alex Shvartsman, Anastasia
Klimchynskaya, Michael Swanwick]

The early Soviet era was a very positivistic, technologically- and
scientifically-minded society. How have the changing cultural
ideologies of the region impacted the kinds of science fiction its
writers have produced over the last eighty years? How has Russian
folklore influenced their stories and storytelling

Sat 11:00 AM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Larry Hodges (mod), David Sklar, John Monahan, Michael
D'Ambrosio, C. J. Cherryh, Michael Swanwick]

Our concepts of dinosaurs have evolved over the decades. Have the
science fictional depictions kept up with the science? Or has the
genre gone extinct

Sat 12:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Michael Swanwick (mod), Vikki Ciaffone, Mitchell Gordon,
Fran Wilde, Jack Hillman]

Or so British Author J.G. Ballard once claimed. What did he mean by
this remark? Should works like Crash and High Rise be considered
science fiction because of the approach to their storytelling, even
though they lack the typical hallmarks of the SF genre


Monday, November 14, 2016

Kirkus and Me


Great news for people who happen to be me! My latest collection, Not So Much, Said the Cat just made it onto Kirkus's list of Best Fiction of 2016.

The list is broken down into categories, so that Romance writers don't find themselves lumped in with Mystery and Thriller. Science Fiction and Fantasy lists ten books -- and I've got to say that I find myself in grand company.

So I am very, very happy today.

You can see my entry here. Or you can go to the top of the lists and browse in the categories that most interest you here.


Friday, November 11, 2016

The Least Pleasant Cure for Writer's Block Imaginable.


I've only had one case of writer's block in my life but it was a doozy. It came on after I'd sold my first three stories but before any of them appeared in print and it lasted for nine months.

Nine very, very long months. During the time that block lasted, I also turned thirty, lost my job, and got married.

I tried every cure in existence. I tried plotting out stories in great detail ahead of time. I tried free-association. I even went with that old chestnut and had somebody walk in with a gun:

"Holy cow!" somebody exclaimed. "He's got a gun!"
"What do you want?" somebody else asked.
"Don't hurt us! We'll do whatever you want, just don't hurt us."

And so on and on and on, until I finally acknowledged that no plot was congealing out of this mess and tore the sheets in half and dropped them in the trash basket. It was as if all your friends had dropped by and then refused to leave, but kept chattering away and raiding your refrigerator for food. Entertaining, perhaps. But certainly not art.

Nevertheless, every day I sat down to write. Every day I produced great volumes of words. Every day I discarded them all. Until, finally, nine months into the process my hind-brain got the message that refusing to give me ideas wasn't going to get it out of sitting in a chair, writing, every day.

At which point, it gave in and I started writing again.

I haven't been blocked since.

This is the least pleasant cure for writer's block imaginable -- keep on writing and continue to keep on writing until something breaks within you and you can write again. And here's the really scary part of this cure:

It worked for me. But I have no idea if it'll work for you.

Still, when all else fails... what have you got to lose?


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Final Visit from Mrs. Porter


Marianne's mother came to our house yesterday, to visit for the last time. When she died, she left her body to a medical school and the cremated ashes have just been returned. We're making arrangements to reunite her with her husband, William Christian Porter, in a cemetery in Fort Indiantown Gap.

When Mrs. Porter was born, women did not have the vote. She grew up to be a Roosevelt Democrat. She even had a job, for a time, helping to set up the Social Security system. When Barack Obama was elected president, she wished him well. But she was disappointed because she wanted a woman president.

Briefly, yesterday, I thought she was going to get her wish. Alas, it was not to be. So, instead, I will ask you to pause and be silent for just a few seconds in memory of a woman who, in her nineties, asked her pal, the church sexton, if she could get her picture taken on his Harley.

That's her up above.


Monday, November 7, 2016

Everfair and the Utopian Tradition


Nisi Shawl's  first novel, Everfair, comes with its own origin story, and it’s a good one. As Shawl revealed in John Scalzi’s blog Whatever:

The impetus for writing Everfair came out of a 2009 World Fantasy Convention panel I was drafted onto. The topic was steampunk; the other participants were Liz Gorinsky, Ann VanderMeer, Michael Swanwick, and Deborah Biancotti. What I didn’t understand going into the panel was why, with my love of Victorian literature and my self-admitted gear kink, I didn’t groove heavily on this genre? The answer I discovered and propounded to the audience: disgust caused by steampunk’s cozy relationship with colonialism. Enough with the be-goggled pith helmets and offscreen resource extraction already, I declared—I was going to write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo! Egged on by Swanwick’s shudders and eye-rolling I added:

 “And I will make you beg to read it!”
This is a marvelous bit of myth-making and, as all good myths must be, it’s true. I don’t recall rolling my eyes, but I definitely shuddered. Literally and repeatedly. Because the essence of steampunk is fun and the thought of setting a joyous romp in a time and place that King Leopold made as close as anyone’s come to creating a Hell on Earth seemed to me, to put it mildly, impossible.

So let me begin  by admitting that, yes, Nisi Shawl has accomplished what I thought could not be done. But the anecdote inadvertently does Everfair a disfavor by linking it too firmly to steampunk and thus placing the suggestion in the readers’ minds that its chief accomplishment is to take the subgenre to an area new to it. (In a subsequent Locus interview, Shawl specified two writers who wrote in that area before her.) In fact, its origins aside, the connections with steampunk are tangential to her novel’s main concerns and accomplishments.

A quick recap of the premises: In the Nineteenth Century the Fabian Society acquires a great deal of money and with it buys a fraction of the Belgian Congo from King Leopold. There, with the aid of steampunk technology largely unavailable to the rest of the world, they intend to create an ideal society. This is told through the intertwined lives of several different protagonists most of whom, as an added treat for readers who like to puzzle such things out, are based on real historical figures.

Everfair, which rhymes with “neverwhere” and echoes Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon, declares its intention in the title. It is primarily concerned not with the lives, loves, and fates of its characters, engaging though they are. Nor is it a steampunk romp, though the first half or so, in which a Fabian government is established, new technology is invented (chiefly -- and it was cunning of Shawl to find this way of indicating Belgian cruelty without wallowing in atrocities -- artificial limbs and other prosthetics), and an airship war is waged against the European oppressors, is certainly entertaining enough to qualify. And while the novel soon becomes an alternative history, this is far from being its main concern.

Everfair is a Utopian novel.

It is, moreover, to borrow Ursula Le Guin’s useful subtitle to The Dispossessed, “an Ambiguous Utopia.”

 It is a common characteristic of Utopias that they are set Somewhere Else, on a far island or a secret valley, or on the planet Anarres, where they are safe from the corrupting influences of the rest of society. By dumping her Utopia in the sea of history, Shawl is able to question and test the very idea of Utopia in a more rigorous manner than is usual.

What happens then? Interesting things. A romance is destroyed by one character's unrecognized (by herself) racism. World War I comes along, and the Everfair government, after free and open debate, chooses sides unwisely. The king of the native people reasserts his authority and disbands the ruling council. Later, he expels all Europeans from Everfair...

There is a school of thought in Buddhism that holds that true enlightenment can be achieved -- but only for an instant. Perhaps something similar applies to Utopias. At novel's close, the main characters have good reason to think their enterprise was a failure. Only the reader, looking in from outside and aware of the alternative, knows better.

I wish I had the time expand on all this at great length. Alas, I have obligations. I cannot here do justice to this wise and important book. All I can do is urge you to read Everfair

Then find someone else who has done the same and talk -- argue if you wish -- about its ideas.


Friday, November 4, 2016

"The Harder I Work..."


Over on Facebook, my friend Kyle Cassidy quoted me as saying to him, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

I have only the haziest recollection of saying that, but it sure sounds like me. Certainly, all my heroes -- Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, the list goes on an on -- have been hard workers.

So I feel the collective weight of their potential disapproval on finding myself perilously close to not posting here today. Long ago, when I began this blog, I committed to posting twice weekly. Normally, I manage three times. Only rarely have I failed to post more than once.

On Wednesday, I was working hard and had no ideas for a post. So I let it slide. Now, on Friday, I'm working hard and I have absolutely no ideas for a post. None whatsoever.

But that's no excuse. So here it is, my second post of the week. I've been working all day, and at this point, even as simple an act of writing as this is hard work.

But I do it just to keep my luck up.

Above: A steampunk cave bear.