Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Conversation Larger Than The Universe


I've been busy on a dozen projects, all of which will be interesting to talk about when done, but not yet. But last week I was in the Grolier Club for the launch of Henry Wessells' exhibition of books from his science fiction and fantasy collection, A Conversation Larger Than the Universe.

The Grolier Club is an organization for book fanciers. Not folks like you and me, mere buyers and readers and amassers of books, but serious bibliophiles. Researchers and scholars and people who make important collections available to their peers. The tomes and related papers on display are not necessarily rare -- though some of them are very rare indeed -- but, taken all together, present a sketch of the entwined genres as a whole, one slightly askew, for it is representative of the interests of a single reader but in its way comprehensive.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book, also titled A Conversation Larger Than the Universe,and subtitled Readings in Science Fiction and the Fantastic. It includes images of I think all the books on display and Henry's graceful writing about the field: It can be read as a history of the twinned and mingled genres, though really it's best to think of as a series of windows opened into different times and concerns. Representative chapters include "Doc Savage & the 1930s," "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" (not about the Howard Waldrop story but about the intersection of SF and rock), "Dark Science," and "Boucher and Borges." If these are topics of interest to you, I can only add that what is said about them is all lucid and engaging.

But I haven't time for a full-scale book review -- those dozen projects, remember? -- so I can only add that the book will be available early this month and can be preordered here.

And you can find review quotes and a description of the book here

And while I'm reminiscing...

Did you know that rock and roll used to be a very hard thing to sell to a science fiction magazine? Back in the early 1980s, both Gardner Dozois and I went about raving to every editor in the field about a wonderful unpublished story called "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" by a wonderful writer named Howard Waldrop and the universal response was, "Rock and roll? Ick." (Eventually, a young editor named Ellen Datlow bought it for Omni.) Gardner and I wrote a science fiction story with Jack Dann in which Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley meet under mysterious circumstances and if it hadn't sold right off the bat to Penthouse, I have no idea where it would have gone. High Times, maybe. That's where Gardner and I sold "Snow Job," our time-traveling, cocaine-dealer con men story. Back then, our salvage markets paid a lot more than the SF magazines did.

But that, as they say, is another story, for another time.

Above: Henry Wessells and me. I apologize for the bluriness. The light levels in the hall were pretty low.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Few Quiet Words Of Praise For Ursula K. Le Guin


Ursula K. Le Guin has left the planet.

I always hoped to meet Ms Le Guin. I never did. But I read her stories and novels and essays, so the rest doesn't matter. Like most of those who now reading these words, I have lost an elder sister.

In the wake of her death, there will be a sorting-out of Le Guin's work. This is literature, that is tref. The Left Hand of Darkness has a good chance of being declared Canonical as does "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." We can go up and down the (now, alas, completed) bibliography, arguing pleasantly which works might well live forever and which will be reserved for scholars to use as thesis-fodder. But forget that.

Return with me in my memory to those days when she was a new writer whose reputation was no better than her latest story. Imagine what it was like to encounter her work, as I did, unprepared by reputation. Here was someone I'd never heard of before who was doing astonishing things. Whose prose was sleek and elegant. Who might easily have been making a reputation for herself in the mainstream but for inexplicable reasons was down here in the trenches of science fiction with the rest of us.


Imagine reading The Left Hand of Darkness when you were expecting nothing more than a paperback space opera.

Harlan Ellison once accused me of having the "cringe of genre." Yeah, ouch, okay, point taken. But in every generation, there are a few writers so good that you're astonished they exist at all, let alone here in the corner of literature we love most. They include (in and out of genre) Delany, Nabokov, Russ, Barth, Byatt, Pynchon, Wolfe... and Le Guin. Writers of such accomplishment that they define the literary landscape.

I've already made my concluding observation elsewhere, so I apologize to those who have seen it before but...

Marianne's father and my father-in-law, William Christian Porter, was a distinguished lawyer and lay pastor and deacon for many years in his church. When he died, the minister compared him to one of the cedars of Lebanon, saying, "Now he's gone. How different the skyline looks!" I could hear the astonishment, the disbelief in his voice.

Now Ursula is gone. How different the skyline looks!

Above: Ursula K. Le Guin mask by Eileen Gunn. Thanks, Eileen!


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

My Weird Spy Novel


I was once asked by an anthologist putting together a book of ghost stories if I'd ever written one.  Why, yes, I said, it's called "Radio Waves." And it got bounced by return mail because it wasn't really a ghost story.

But it was. All the characters were dead, to begin with, and eking out a meager unseen existence in the quiet spaces of homes and abandoned buildings. What turned the anthologist off was how weird a ghost story it was. (When you die, you see, the world turns upside-down and you fall off. But if there's metal between yourself and the sky and you keep your wits about you, you can manage to stay, living upside-down and subject to dangers you don't understand.)

So it was a  particular pleasure to see my novel Stations of the Tide included in Max Gladstone's list of Five Books Featuring Weird Spies on For a spy novel, my book was an awfully strange one. But there's no denying that that's what the Bureaucrat (the protagonist has no other name) is -- an agent, an operative, a spy. Or as James Bond once called himself, a "troubleshooter."

You can find out what Gladstone had to say about Stations of the Tide -- and what his other quite interesting choices were -- by reading the article here.

And I should mention...

Max Gladstone is the author of the Craft Sequence novels (undead gods and skeletal law wizards) one one of the authors of the collaborative fantasy spy series The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. (I guest-authored an episode for the first season and did a decent job of it, I thought.)  You can find the second season of the serial here.

Above: James Bond is the Elvis of spies. Did I ever mention the connection between James Bond and Hope Mirrlees, author of Lud-in-the-Mist? If not, I'll have to do so someday.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Girl Heroes

I just now read Dara Horn's essay, Finding Science Fiction and Fantasy for Female Readers, in the Paris Review blog. The title's a bit of a misnomer since it's about specifically YA fantasy & sf but that's a quibble and my only one. The essay is about how when Ms Horn was a girl, genre fiction turned her off largely because it almost never had anybody who convincingly reminded her of herself. And how the genres nowadays have a richness of female protagonists.

It's hard today to appreciate how difficult it was Back When to imagine the protagonist of an adventure novel being female. I remember when I was a struggling gonnabe back in the Seventies that one of my ambitions was to write something with a hero who was also a woman. It seemed terribly daunting then. There were so few of them!

And then came Joanna Russ's Alyx. She was tough and capable and brave and smart. Also short. And plain.

This last came as a shock. The female leads in SF stories were always beautiful. Even Russ reflexively started to describe Alyx that way. Then, she later recalled, the character looked up at her from the page and said, "Oh, come off it!"

After Picnic on Paradise came out, it became a whole lot easier to write female heroes. It broke something loose. More and more writers -- women, mostly -- followed in Russ's footprints. By the time I'd learned my craft well enough to write one, nobody thought it was much of an accomplishment.

Which is a good thing.

And that's part of the point of Dara Horn's essay. You can read it here.

And Picnic on Paradise is still a great book. In fact, it's a classic of the genre. If you haven't read it, you should consider doing so.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The First Good Writing Advice I Ever Got As A Pro


Up above is an advance image of the Engel der Schwerkraft forthcoming German Translation of Gravity's Angels, my first short story collection. I won't pretend that I'm not delighted that my stories will be published there. (Coming soon from Apex-Verlag. Translation by Norbert Stöbe. Cover by Christian Dörge.)

By coincidence, I recently typed out one of the stories therein (I didn't have an e-file because they were all written on a typewriter) to give to a friend for non-commercial reasons. Wow, was that painful. "What's with all the italics?" I said out loud. "Why are there so many commas in strange places?"

Somehow, I restrained myself from rewriting the thing from top to bottom.

Which brought to mind the first good writing advice I ever received as a pro. It came from my agent, the then -living legend, Virginia Kidd. "Never go back and rewrite your published work," she said. "It's always a mistake."

I had no intention of ever rewriting anything I got published, so I couldn't have been putting out vibes that I might do so. Which, I immediately realized, meant that this was a universal or near-universal temptation. So there it is:

Virginia Kidd's First Rule for Writers

Never rewrite your published works.

Virginia never spelled it out -- she just lay down the law.But I'll do it for you. There are two reasons. First, rewriting a story or novel is as much work as writing a new story -- and it doesn't result in something you can sell as a new story or novel. And second, there is a certain freshness to a story that gets lost in a later rewrite. Rewrites are almost always stiffer: more formally correct and less fun to read.

Which brings to mind the second time Virginia Kidd lay down the law to me. This one I might have been tempted to do had I not been warned away:

Virginia Kidd's Second Rule for Writers

Don't write book reviews.

This one she explained to me. "Writers are never grateful for positive reviews -- they all think they deserve them. But they'll hate you for a negative one. All writing reviews will do for you is make enemies."

Which is painfully true.

If any of Virginia's other clients have rules to pass along, please do. Maybe we can assemble them into a meme. The kind of meme that's actually useful, I mean.

Above: As I said, I'm delighted to be back in German print again.


Monday, January 15, 2018

And the Winners of the Godless Atheist Christmas Card Competition ARE...


It's been quite a year for Godless Atheist Christmas Cards. As anyone who listened to the deliberations of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family (posted here yesterday) knows, there were so many bleak and nihilistic cards that ultimately we had to throw up our hands and declare that all but the first and second place cards had placed third.

Congratulations, everyone! Take a bow.

But there can only be one. Or in this case, one plus a second-place winner.

Second place went to  artist extraordinaire Jason Van Hollander for his beautifully-printed Signum Inferni, featuring a sheet of signed and numbered hell stamps presented in an art-sleeve with an owl in robes. The stamps themselves showed members of the Pantheon of Hell, with such names as Insania and Insomnium and Absurdum.

There it is below.

In any other year, Jason's card would have been the sure winner. But this year, the winning card arrived not through the mail but hand-delivered onto our back porch in the dead of night. It was not printed on cardboard stock but hand-written on a meat cleaver with stamps affixed to its haft. Instead of an envelope, it was buried in a turnip. A turnip with a grotesque bleeding face.


Despite the fact that it was clearly created with the sole purpose of winning the competition, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family felt that we had no choice but to declare it the winner. Not just for the Godless Atheist-icness of it but because if the police had happened to notice its perpetrator slinking about our back yard, they would have discovered he had written a terrorist threat on a meat cleaver. The ensuing conversation is one that I personally would love to have heard.

So, congratulations, Sam Jordan. You not only won the competition, you ducked a long and invigorating conversation with the boys at the local precinct.

That's the "card" up at the top of the page.

And in way of apology...

I'm sorry I didn't have this up last Thursday as planned. A cold intervened, for which I hope I may be forgiven.

In any case, my apologies. I hope that that Sam's turnip made this post worth the wait.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 2018 Godless Atheist Christmas Card Awards


The Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family has met in solemn convocation and chosen the one card out of all those received that will -- nay, indeed, must! -- be named the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year.

I should mention that the composition of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family (me, my wife Marianne, and our son Sean) was in way influenced by the fact that we are related, nor by the convenience of us living so near to one another. No, it simply happens that out of all the people on this planet, gosh darn it, we three are the most qualified for the task.

This year, in the interest of transparency, our IT team (Sean) has put together a movie of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family holding our deliberations, including first, second, and third places. You can check here tomorrow to find out who won.

Or you can simply view and listen to the film above.



Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Odd Advice for New Writers: The Blurb Shelf


Okay. So you're a new writer, you've made a few sales, maybe your first novel has come out. Now you've been approached to provide a blurb for somebody else's book. What do you do?

Knowing new writers, you're going to drop everything, read the book at once, and if at all possible you're going to provide a blurb. It's what real writers do, after all. It's a sign that you've made it into the Great Game! They want your blurb! Just like they want Ursula K. Le Guin's! But after that?

I suggest you start a Blurb Shelf. Find a convenient corner among your books and when you receive a copy of the book (as you should) from the publisher, place it there. The next time one of your blurbs appears, put that book next to the first one. And so on. After a while, the shelf will begin to take on a kind of personality. When it does, stop and ponder:

Do you like what you see?

Ideally, you should be blurbing the kind of writers you want to be, those who write works like your own, those you admire, and those you think are becoming worthy of being on your blurb shell. It should serve as a kind of mirror to your writing preferences.

If it doesn't... if there are books on your blurb shelf you don't want to keep... then you've become a Blurb Whore.

Is it wrong to be a "Blurb Whore?"

Not necessarily. Editors will notice will notice and start sending you ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) of new works they think you'll like. This will spice up your mailbox like nobody's business.  Plus, nobody's ever offended that you gave them praise, so you're partway to having new friends. And you're doing the work of angels by putting good writers and good readers together.

Unless, of course, your blurb shelf says that you're blurbing books you don't really admire.

In which case, you really should cut back. Because all you're doing then is filling your mailbox with stuff you don't want to read.

So have I taken my own advice?

Of course not. People who offer advice rarely do. But there are many, many things I should have done that I didn't and I'd be better off now if I had.This may well be one of them.

And speaking of coming attractions...

Sitting in solemn convocation, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family has passed judgment on this year's collection of season's greetings cards. In a unanimous decision, we have chosen this year's winning Godless Atheist Christmas Card.

Keep tuned to this blog to find out what won. Same Bat-Channel! Same Bat-Station!

Above: Why, yes, I did indeed provide a blurb for one of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books. Somebody actually thought my endorsement would add luster to Ms. Le Guin's reputation. I won't pretend this wasn't a Very Big Deal for me.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

A List of Forty-Nine Lies by Steven Fischer

A Review

Here'show the story begins:

My name is not Levi. I am not afraid.

This is a great example of how much work a properly-chosen title can do. Two sentences into the story and we know that the protagonist's name is Levi, that he is afraid, and that we are only forty-seven lies from its end.

Reading a series of negatives and decoding them into positives would be exhausting for the reader if the story went on too long.Thankfully, Fischer knew to "write to length," as the Old Hands like to say. A novella unnaturally compressed to novelette length will feel rushed and unsatisfying. A short story made into a novella will feel padded. This is a natural flash fiction. It is, most satisfactionaly, written as one.

Were I to say much of anything about the plot of a story that is only, as promised,forty-nine lies long, it would spoil at least much of the experience for the reader. So. In summary:

It's short.

It's a good story.

I like it.

A List of Forty-Nine Lies was published in the January/February issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.


Friday, January 5, 2018

A Torrent of Faces (Part 2)


One thing that doesn't come across on television is how friendly the Mummers are. Sometimes some of them will rush the camera and wave and shout "Happy New Year!" and it comes across as kind of rude and pushy.

That's now how it comes across on the street.

These are happy, friendly people who are giving you a remarkable experience, out of the goodness of their hearts. And they're happy to pose with you.

It takes all kinds to make a Mummers Brigade -- and admittedly some of them look like it's a little more work than they're enjoying.

Most, though, look like they're having a hoot and a half.

And it's worth mentioning how many Mummers are family men. There are a lot of children in the parade. It's a common thing to see infants in Snuglis and carriages -- just so that late in life they'll be able to brag that they've marched in 80 or 90 parades.

Some of those kids are cute, too.

But it's the adult faces that steal the show.

It used to be that women were not allowed in the Mummers. That's changed and the change is good. Still, those of us old enough to remember when this costume would have been filled by a 300-pound dock worker with five o'clock shadow have to admit that a certain je ne sais quois has been lost.

When they've marched to the end of the parade, some Mummers go home. Others walk back up the sidewalk, sometimes interacting with the parade viewers, sometimes trying to pick up a date, each according to their type. Here's the funny thing, though. Sometimes viewers show up in costume. So I have no idea if this guy was a Mummer or not.

Some of these guys, it should be mentioned, are downright dashing.

This man was getting by on charm. Which he had in spades. He gave Marianne a Flannigan NYB sign satirizing our mayor. (A lot of Mummers liked her "Occupy Mars" hat -- it was the kind of thing they'd come up with themselves.)

It should be mentioned that the Mummers marched even though it was a bitter cold day -- so cold that the spilled beer literally froze on the street. (Did I mention that the Mummers -- well, the Comics, anyway -- drink like fish? Considering that some of them started the night before, you have to respect that.)

It takes a good photographer with a good set of lenses to capture that joyous anarchy that is the Mummers Parade. But I include the above pic to give you just the slightest idea of the flow of color and costume that goes on all morning and afternoon, for hour after hour. It really is a wonderful experience.

But mostly, as I said, it's all about the faces.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Torrent of Faces


Marianne and I spent most of Monday at the Mummers Parade, here in Philadelphia. And I am here to tell you that it's a different experience on the street than it is on television. The sense of fun and anarchy is electrifying. Mummers come over to the crowds watching to slap hands, kiss women, throw beads, and shout "Happy New Year!" The guy up above? He saw me taking pictures, so he came over to tell me why he was marching. The drum line with one band of mummers came over to the police barricades and, stepping sideways, the front line drummed on the barricades themselves. Just to let us know how good they were. And it sounded fantastic!

That's something you don't get at most parades. A real sense that these guys aren't just entertainers but people too.

So what's the Mummers Parade all about? Wrong question. They're not about anything. They just are. They march because that's what their fathers and grandfathers always did at this time of year. And they have fun doing so.

Which is not say there isn't a certain... edge to the Mummers. They're for the most part blue collar guys and the Comics in particular (there are four categories of Mummer: Comics, String Bands, Fancies, and Fancy Brigades) like to mix in a little political commentary. Pictured above, the Froggy Carr New Year's Brigade's take on Mayor Kenney's unpopular soda tax.

And, from another NYB, their take on Catholic education.

As the nun costumes may suggest, Mummers like to dress up as women. Directly above is a typical "wench" costume. It's an amazing experience to see a street full of wenches, waving flags, carrying signs, popping beers, pumping umbrellas, and coming straight at you.

You have to be a better photographer than I am to capture that sense of unchoreographed anarchy. But I learned long ago that if you want to photograph Mummers, it's all about the faces. And the parade is a joyous torrent of them.