Monday, December 29, 2008

What I SHOULDA Said About Neil Gaiman

The latest issue of Rain Taxi notes the my-god-can-it-be? twentieth anniversary of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. They solicited a shout-out to the Man on the event, and I wrote one that would have been appropriate had they garnered the twelve-to-twenty squibs, blurbs, and whimsies I was sure they would have.

But when I received my contributor's copy of the zine, there were only three squibs. Possibly this was because they could only dedicate a page to them. Or maybe the editor didn't have a good idea of exactly how many he could have gotten. Or there might have been some other reason. So what I wrote came out sounding, to me at least, as if I were trying just a little too hard. As if I weren't willing to just stand up and praise the guy.

If I'd known, I would have said something along the lines of: I love Sandman, I read the comics as they came out, and I have the complete set of compilations on my shelves. Then I would've commented on which my favorite stories are (probably and predictably the Shakespeares -- I'm a writer, after all -- but I might've speculated on which I'd've liked best if I were a civilian).

Then I would've delved a little deeper into Gaiman's appeal by pointing out that his script for the Neverwhere mini-series allowed inspired actors to create unforgetable roles (the Marquise de Carabras and Vandermeer & Croup being my favorites, but I wouldn't argue with yours) while being sharp enough that the occasional flat performance (I've lost my notes, but I'm sure there were some) didn't sink the enterprise because we viewers could mentally fill in what should have been there. And I would have finished with a sharp observation about the value of plot and/or character creation.

On top of which I would have given a literal shout-out, something on the lines of: "Yo! Neil! Keep on raving!"
Oh well.

But even if I wasn't note-perfect in this instance, it was a pleasure reading Rain Taxi. The reviews cover genre, poetry, non-fiction, and serious mainstream as if an intelligent reader might actually be capable of appreciating all of them! A lovely magazine.

And here, just so you know what I'm talking about, is what I wrote:

Storytelling in Chengdu

Neil and I are kindred enough spirits that I’ve compiled a mental list of areas where he can best me on my home turf. He’s better-read than I am in early twentieth-century classic fantasy, which before meeting him I would have said was unlikely. He knows more about R. A. Lafferty’s works, which I would have said was impossible. I’m not ready to concede his superior knowledge of mythology and folklore – I have lain down on the Stone of Loneliness, and I know why Weyland Smith has geese, and there are not many who can claim half as much – but given that I had to turn to him to learn what portunes are, it’s well within the realm of possibility.

Not that any of this is a competition.

But here’s the thing. I am a compulsive storyteller. Start me up, and I do not stop. People tell me it can be a bit much. “No more stories!” a well-known writer shouted at me once, when he was trying to organize dinner. “We’ve got things to accomplish here!” Nor was he the only one, over the years, to intimate I might fruitfully dial it down.

So it amazed me when I was in Chengdu last year with Neil (and Nancy Kress and Rob Sawyer, and several other very pleasant folk) to discover that he’s got an even worse case of narrative-itis than I do. Everything set him off. When we’d been mobbed by young Chinese fans seeking autographs, he said, “Autographing is fun for the first two and a half hours. When I was in Brazil . . .” At the Panda Breeding and Research Center, he began, “I have a friend who got a job here harvesting panda sperm. It turns out this is done by electroshock, so . . .” There were times I could hardly get an anecdote in edgewise.

And you know what I learned? Two things. First, that my well-known friend (possibly prompted by hunger) was wrong. A compulsive storyteller is the best company in the world. Second, that given the choice, I’d rather listen to Neil’s stories than tell my own, simply because I already know how mine come out. So in that respect, I guess Neil wins.

Not as I said, that it’s a competition.

– Michael Swanwick


Friday, December 26, 2008


What a year it's been for the Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition!  Photo cards of the senders were very big this season.  Britton and Jacqueline sent a snap of themselves at a football game.  Penny and Dick's photo showed them in front of a waterfall somewhere in the Rockies dressed for warm weather hiking.  And Liz's family posed doing a variant of the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil monkeys behind what looked to be an enormous dish of radishes.  These were all excellent attempts, and only the presence of actual family members who appeared to love one another kept them from sliding into absolute nihilism.

Then there were the commercial cards prepackaged to come within a whisker of Godlessness.  The photo of a panda sadly resting its chin on a lump of snow was probably taken in Chengdu, which was its saving.  The Disney card of Tinkerbell showing off her perky, Barbie-esque cleavage had the sulfurous stench of idolatry to it.  And then of course there were the polka-dot flip-flops resting on beach sand.  Only the suspicion that the flowers decorating the straps were supposed to be poinsettias kept this last one from perfect seasonal inappropriateness.

One of the usual front-runners put in a poor showing this year.  Couple B succumbed to sentimentality by sending a card showing bright galaxies hanging in the sky over a wilderness scene.  It was clearly intended to evoke science fictional "sense of wonder," but in practice came far too close to religious awe and the judges disqualified it in a heartbeat.

And the results?

Fourth place went to Person C, who cashed in a small fraction of the karma he earned this year, working hard to improve the lives of people in the Third World, by sending a photo of a sculpture on a California campus that appeared to be an assemblage of boulders making up a crude but gigantic teddy bear.  Even the (deliberate? accidental?) similarity of the sculpture to Winnie-the-Pooh failed to evoke any seasonal sentiment whatsoever.

Third place went to Friends Who Spent Christmas in Hawaii -- which in and of itself was already one strike against them -- for a card decorated with Adinkra symbols expressing such sentiments as Obik Nka Obie ("bite not one another"), Sankofa ("return and get it") and Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu ("Siamese crocodiles").  A card whose irrelevance extends beyond Christmas to cover Easter, Arbor Day, your cousin's Bat Mitzvah . . .  and in fact, any card-worthy event you can think of.

Second place went to multi-year-winners Couple A.  Their card arrived the day after Christmas, almost disqualifying them.  But its artwork of a faceless soldier holding a machine gun (good artwork, I hasten to stress) was so strong as to demand their inclusion.

But the winners were unquestionably our good friends Anonymous, who sent the above photo with a cheery message of "mathematical modernist winter greetings."  It was the, yes, mathematical grid-like machined precision of the the chair, coupled with the inherent sadness of a garden in winter that did it.   Truly breathtaking.

So, congratulations to all the winners!  And to all the other contestants, better luck next year!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Krampus Is Coming!

My son Sean warns me against filling the blog with "Web pasta." But, what the heck, it's Christmas Eve! Did you know that Santa Claus has an evil counterpart named Krampus? And that where Santa comes to give good boys and girls presents, Krampus comes to punish the wicked with beatings?

Even worse, while there's only one Santa, Krampus comes in herds! As witness the following documentary footage:

Of course, if you've been good, there's nothing to be concerned about. But, knowing you as I do, I have to worry.

Well, we'll know tonight. In the meantime, we might as well enjoy a jolly Krampus carol:

(My thanks to Gardner Dozois for the links!)

And on Friday . . .

. . . the winner of this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition. Don't miss it!


Monday, December 22, 2008

Dancing With Marianne

Kyle Cassidy came by the house last week to take my picture for a project he's got brewing.  Kyle is an extraordinary photographer.  His most recent book is Armed America:  Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes, a topic which could have been drearily political in less talented hands.  But the book everybody loves most is War Paint:  Tattoo Culture & the Armed Forces.  There's just something extremely close to the bone in the choice of decoration a war-fighter (as they're called now) places on the body that may well be sacrificed for one's country.  There's a lot to think about in those photos.

Obviously, a guy who writes books is not as profound a subject.  But while he was here, Kyle took some shots of me and Marianne together.  There we are, above, dancing in the living room.

What a beautiful woman she is!  What a fortunate man am I!


Friday, December 19, 2008

Godless Atheist Christmas Cards

It's that time of year again -- Christmas card season. Every solstice, the cards come flooding in and every solstice, admit it, you pass judgment on them. Here (excerpted from a letter by her cousin John Saunders; Margot was Hope's sister) is how Hope Mirrlees handled the annual tradition that she called the “ceremony of the Christmas Cards”:

Hope made Margot accompany her along the lines of rows of cards on display. One by one they categorised them. Most (including mine) were dismissed a ‘HIDGEOUS’. A few were deemed ‘nicely, nicely’. The gems of the collection, generally featuring Rob Red Breasts, were given the highest accolade, ‘FRABJOUS’. Margot acted as a moderate moderator, apparently knowing ‘the rules’ but generally trying to raise rather than lower Hope’s classifications.

In my household, we have a yearly competition for the most Godless Atheist Christmas Card -- the one with absolutely no tint of religion or spirituality whatsoever. Indeed, it often goes into negative territory.

Traditionally, Couple A (not their real name) have dominated the competition with their homemade cards featuring grim and unseasonal artwork in no way relating to any of the religions which I'm pretty sure they disapprove of without reservation. They've been given a run for the money in recent years, however, by Couple B. Not long ago, the Bs sent us a card of their younger selves protesting a pre-W appearance by John Ashcroft, with the cheery holiday slogan: WE TRIED TO WARN YOU.

"We've got a winner!" I crowed when that came in. But then, the very next day the As' card arrived -- and the artwork was dominated by a portrait of Lenin.

This year Couple B has rather let down the side by sending a card with a winter meadow over which hang bright galaxies in the night sky. Beauty in winter night is inherently spiritual, and so the card has been dropped from the running.

Jason Van Hollander, meanwhile, has made a strong bid with a card featuring his artwork of skeleton people frolicking happily in Medieval settings, with the greeting: HAPPY HORROR-DAYS. However, the Totentanz is in its origins essentially religious, so I believe his card may yet be bested.

We're still awaiting this year's card from Couple A.


Monday, December 15, 2008

The Fabulous Victoria Janssen!

Sunday, I went to Big Blue Marble which, now that Robin's is (sob!) closing, is Philadelphia's premiere bookstore, for a reading from The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom, & Their Lover a Harlequin Spice title and Victoria Janssen's first published novel. The book (so says its publicity offers "a little something for everyone - including light bondage, cross-dressing and eunuch-on-eunuch action. A solid plot and characterizations hold it all together nicely, and the ending is unexpectedly sweet."

That's my friend Victoria above, autographing a book.

And here's a photo of the cake she brought in to celebrate with.

And Speaking of the Franklin Institute . . .

Friday I went to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society to hear Derek Pitts, the astronomer at the Franklin Institute give a talk about recent revolutions in our understanding of the universe. Afterwards, he revealed that starting next April the Franklin will host an exclusive show titled
Galileo, Medici and The Age of Astronomy, which will include many of Galileo's scientific instruments, including one of the two surviving telescopes with which he made the discoveries that revolutionized astronomy. This is the first time the telescope has ever been loaned out by the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (this link leads to an English-language page) in Florence, Italy, and it goes straight home afterwards. No other museum will be showing it.

As it chances, I've already seen the telescope and the instruments in Florence. By kneeling down and peering through the vitrine, I was able to actually look through it. And saw an out-of-focus blur of blank ceiling, of course. That's not what matters, though. I looked through Galileo's telescope! That's what matters.

But I also saw a display there that I'll bet you dollars to donuts won't be on display at the Franklin. Here's a brief essay that I wrote about . . .

Galileo's Finger

One of the lesser-known treasures of Florence is its science museum. The Museum of the History of Science is located next to the Uffizi Gallery in the fourteenth-century Castellani Palace in Piazza dei Giudici. Its ten rooms are crammed with early scientific equipment, most from the Medici collections and almost all exquisitely crafted in the manner of the times. It's a wonderful peek into the dawn age of science.

Central to the collection are Galileo's telescopes, including the very lenses with which he discovered that Jupiter had moons, Venus had phases, and Saturn had "ears." When my wife, Marianne Porter, and I were in Florence some years ago, we of course visited the museum specifically to see those lenses.

We found one thing more: A crystal reliquary which rests without special pomp upon an eye-level shelf in a glass display case. Preserved within the reliquary is the mummified middle finger of Galileo's left hand.

It's hard to express the delighted sense of absurdity confirmed that Marianne and I felt when we discovered this particular artifact. Even for Italy, this was hard to believe. But there it was, the great man's finger, mounted bolt upright, its back facing the wall.

I ran to the nearest window to orient the case, reliquary, and finger in relation to the Arno. Then I drew a sketch and carefully entered the information in my notebook.

When we emerged from the museum, we got out our maps of Florence and of Italy. Carefully, we worked out exactly in what direction the back of that august finger was turned. When we had done so, we howled with laughter. For our suspicions were confirmed.

Sure enough, the back of Galileo's finger (and he was an Italian, which means he was fluent in the language of gesture) is directed now and eternally toward Rome and the Vatican.


Friday, December 12, 2008

The Fabulous Alexis Gilliland!

Fan cartoonist extraordinaire (and the man who beat me out for the Campbell Award for best new writer way back in '82 or '83-- not that I'm bitter or anything, mind you.  Bitter?  Me?  It is to laugh) Alexis Gilliland has created a website for his cartoons.  To date he's got something like 300 up, but the plan is to post thousands -- thousands! -- over the coming months.

So far, none of my absolute favorites have made it up.  I'm thinking, of course, of the bureaucrat sitting at a desk with a small box atop it.  "This box of gravity-proof material contains a miniature black hole," he says with a distinctly mean smile.  "Doubters open it every time!"

Or the cartoon, now residing in a small frame in my library, which shows a disgusted-looking man holding up by two fingers a book from which a drop of something liquid falls.  His observation?  "Never let a bibliosexual into your library."

Or . . . but enough.  Go take a look.  Sooner or later, they'll all make their way online.

And when will the project be completed?  My best guess is never.  I've been in convention bar conversations where Alexis sat calmly chatting while compulsively doodling cartoon after cartoon.  Nobody can keep up with that kind of productivity.

And, NOT as usual . . . 

The last Poem du Jour has been posted.  There were 99 letters, which were saved from oblivion by Ben Davis (thanks, Ben!) and the rest, the many which came before then, are gone wherever old emails go.  A farm somewhere upstate, as I understand it.

It's been fun, and now it's over.  Freeing up more time, I might add, for other projects.  So I step briefly into the light and bow.  The applause washes over me.  And I fade back into the shadows.

This blog you're reading, however, will continue.  Certain of my friends demand it.


Monday, December 8, 2008

My Christmas Stamps

Where did all the time go? I haven't made the Christmas cards yet! I'll have to start today. I haven't even made the stamps . . . and it looks like I've left it too late. Sigh.

Oh, well. At least I know what I want to do. Next year's stamp will be a knockout. Almost as good as the one I made up last year. The image for which is shown above. That's my son Sean in his leather jacket, reindeer nose, and 'tude. I made it up at Zazzle, which means that technically you could buy it by the sheet there. But you won't, because the season's getting late and you don't need yet another chore to get done before you can mail your cards.

I don't do that kind of thing to friends.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Remembering Janet Kagan

Marianne and I went out to dinner last night with Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper and Ricky Kagan. One of the many things we talked about was the ongoing organization of Janet Kagan's papers, which are going to the Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library at Eastern New Mexico University. There ought to be some fascinating stuff among the papers -- Ricky mentioned unpublished novels -- but I've got to say that it always makes me sad to think that we don't have Janet around anymore. She was a great friend, and a real live wire. She threw off sparks.

One time, though, at a convention, she became convinced that I was angry with her. Here's the explanation of how I came about to write a short-short called "Like the Boiled Eggs in Isaac Asimov":


I wrote this story years ago at some long-forgotten convention because Janet Kagan thought I was angry at her. In a late-night conversation she’d asked me about a disturbing recurrent element she’d seen in my fiction. I told her she was mistaken. She explained that she had a preternatural ability to spot such things in people’s stories, and gave me several impressive examples. I said that was nice, but that in this one instance she was wrong.

Most writers are monsters of ego. Not Janet. She decided she’d offended me and became immensely unhappy with herself for doing so. I couldn’t convince her otherwise.

The next morning at breakfast, pondering ways I might reassure Janet we were still friends, it occurred to me to write a story about our misunderstanding. So I flipped open my notebook and jotted down “Like the Boiled Eggs in Isaac Asimov.” And indeed, as I knew it would, the story made everything good between us.

Meanwhile, Allen Steele was standing outside the hotel with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand, waiting for a shuttle bus. He didn’t know that he was about to enter the enduring folklore of science fiction.

But that’s another story, for another day.

And here's the story itself. I posted it earlier this year, when Janet died, but what the hell. It made her laugh. And that still makes me happy.

Like the Boiled Eggs in Isaac Asimov

She hadn't wanted the gift.

Janet Kagan had simply woken up one morning and there it was: the ability to detect patterns in other people's fiction. Things like the giant cheese wedges in Norman Spinrad. The Barney imagery in Joanna Russ. The shaved mice in Larry Niven.

Which was why she was where she was now – running in blind terror down a long and Harlan Ellisonesque alley while the misshapen shadows of her pursuers leapt and capered on the walls.

It made no sense whatsoever to her that they wanted to kill her. But they did. She knew that. It was as clear as the references to the Trilateral Commission in the novels of Samuel R. Delany. Janet stumbled against a trash can, sending it crashing noisily to the ground. She fell, and struggled back to her feet, and ran.

There up ahead – a wall! With a sickening lurch in the pit of her stomach, she realized that she was caught in a cul-de-sac.

There was no way out. She could no more hope to escape than she could avoid seeing the encoded messages to Libyan terrorists in the Xanth novels of Piers Anthony.

In despair, she stumbled to a halt.

Her pursuers, seeing she was trapped, stopped as well. A menacing form stepped out of the shadows. It was the head of SFWA's crack team of assassins, James Morrow himself. He had a lead pipe in his hand. His eyes glowed red, as if he were one of the myriad werewolves informing his own fiction.

Behind him were more shadows, deformed, unsightly. Writers all.

"God damn it," Janet cried in anguish, "I wasn't even an English major!"

And then they were upon her.


Monday, December 1, 2008

The Carnegie

How did you spent Black Friday?  I spent it at the Carnegie.  The theme of the International (did they used to have themes?  I don't think so) was Life On Mars, and while most of the artists did as much with it as you'd expect of a batch of postmodern artists, one -- Mike Kelley -- batted a thousand with his Kandors.  They were a variety of takes on Superman's Kandor, the City in a Bottle (I feel like there ought to be a trademark sign after that) done in ceramic gas tanks and crystalline cities.  Beautiful stuff.  The artist was inspired by the fact that the appearance of Kandor differed from comic to comic. 

Was there ever a better example of how the line between high art and low has been blurred, trampled over, inverted, and made of mockery of in recent years?

I was also blown away by the Hall of Dinosaurs remake (blurry snapshot above) in the Natural History half of the Museum.  The award-winning mural by my friends Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger of the Walters and Kissinger Studio was not only the longest dino mural ever made but quite simply wonderful.  But I have to admit that everything else about the redo was also first-rate.  The mounts were fabulous, the pathways between exhibits open and easy to walk, the diorama materials so carefully placed as to make it the easiest thing in the world for amateur photographers to grab snaps that looked like they were taken in situ in the Cretaceous . . . well, suffice it to say that the Inner Science Kid was entirely satisfied.

Only two quibbles:  1)  The reconstruction of Confuciusornis looked far more like a magpie than the fossils would lead one to expect.   And 2)  Now the Hall of Mammals looks second-rate by comparison.  Its fossils are world-class.  Let's hope the Carnegie quickly finds the enormous amount of money it would take to redo their surroundings equally well.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.  Have I mentioned that it's almost over and done for?  Yep.  Won't be long now.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm off to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving, so I thought I'd better post something today in case I can't manage Friday. My experience is that (oddly enough) it's hard to get Internet access and a functioning laptop together both at the same time in that part of the world. At least, it is if you're me.

And what better way to mark Thanksgiving than with a picture of Gardner Dozois? The above photo was taken by the extremely talented Kyle Cassidy -- on his cell phone! I've taken lots of pictures in my living room and this one is so much better than mine as to bring us smack-dab up against the question of talent. How can this be? It's just a snapshot! But there we are.

Gardner, of course, would say that I'm marking Thanksgiving by putting up a picture of a turkey. But we shall ignore his snarky comments.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour
has been updated. I just now took a look, and it's coming to an end soon. How soon? Well, the latest poem is either number 93 or 94 (I'm about to post Thursday's poem early) and the surviving letters only go up to 99. But it's been fun, haznit? For me, anyway.


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Best Panel at Philcon

You missed the best panel at Philcon.  I know because pretty much everybody else did.  It was the Tom Disch memorial panel and it was held at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, a time when nobody's in the mood to think about newly-dead writers.  Plus, it was up against ten other panels  -- at eleven in the morning!  

Which is why when the panel began, there was only one person in the audience.  I don't think the number ever got above six.

Now, the rule is that when the number of people on the panel exceeds the number in the audience, the panel is empowered to adjourn to the bar and continue the discussion over drinks.  But it was eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning.  So Gardner Dozois and Lee Gilliland and Darrell Schweitzer and I just reminisced among ourselves about Tom and his accomplishments.  About his poetry and his novels and his stories.  About the early video game he wrote.  About how "The Brave Little Toaster," a story dripping with sarcasm, became a Disney cartoon.  About his libretto for an opera based on Frankenstein.  About his very first story, "Descending," which we all agreed was one of the most terrifying stories ever written. About...

Well, it just went on and on.  We didn't even get around to his light verse explaining grammar, which is a personal favorite of mine.

So you missed a great discussion.  It wasn't your fault, but it is a pity.

If I can find the doggerel I wrote in praise of Disch's grammar poems, I'll post it here later in the week.

Oh, and the picture?

That's me wearing my new "Kosmonaughty" t-shirt.  I don't normally wear t-shirts.  But for this image, I was willing to make an exception.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.  This time, a poem by a guy who was "Fat, Jewish, Gay -- and Way Cool."  Enjoy.


Friday, November 21, 2008

A Blog Entry That Starts Out Looking Like It's Going To Be A Janis Ian Anecdote But Which Is Actually All About Bob the Musician

Last Friday I went to hear Janis Ian perform at the Sellersville Theater.  Good show.  At one point, though, she began to sing "Love Me Do" in a slow and sincere manner and at the break genially scolded the audience for not getting that it was supposed to be funny.

I can't speak for the rest of the audience -- maybe they were all louts, I don't know -- but personally I listened raptly because her version had an unearthly purity I found entrancing.  It put me in mind of another slowed-down Beatles standard, which I've never actually heard performed, but which has stayed with me for decades.

It was back in the early Seventies and I was sitting in a diner having a cup of coffee and a donut one afternoon when another diner moved his plate and cup and sat down beside me.  It was Bob the Musician.  I knew Bob's last name, mind you, and still do, but back then, when I was young, it was just sensible policy not to air people's full names in public.  So B the M he was.

Bob told me he'd stopped by to say goodbye.  That he had a gig in California that could be the start of a real career and was leaving tomorrow.  That his band had achieved "every white rock band's ultimate dream and hired a black female back-up singer."  And that he'd retooled "I Am the Walrus" as a slow, romantic number.

Back then, understand, nobody did covers of Beatles songs.  The very idea was blasphemous.  It was like writing your own version of the Koran or revising the Ten Commandments.  But Bub the Musician had done exactly that.

In heaven's name, I asked -- why?

Bob the Musician smiled.  "I just wanted to see yuppies slow-dancing to me singing 'yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye," he said.

Then he hoisted his guitar case and left.

Thirty seconds later, the diner's owner came over and said, "Do you know that guy you were talking to?  He just left without paying his bill."

"I never saw him before in my life," I said.

The Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention is the weekend . . .

. . . though, oddly enough, it's in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  If you're going to be there, feel free to say Hi.  I'll be there all weekend, and I'll be ubiquitous.  Just like Chun the Unavoidable.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.  Check out "The Arrow, the Song, Will Not Stay Us Long."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Diagramming Darger and Surplus

Well, here it is, the distinguished thing.  You'll notice that it's more complicated than most of my diagrams.  That's because this novel is a lot more complicated than my previous ones.  Darger and Surplus are con men, see, so they lead less straightforward lives than most protagonists do.  Meanwhile, what's happening to them is pretty damn complicated in its own right.

The important things to notice in the diagram are the two vertical lines dividing it into three.  After drawing it all out, I immediately saw (as I presume you do too) that it's way too complicated for one chapter.  So everything to the left of the first line went into the preceding chapter and everything to the right line will go into the next one.

And it works!  How do I know?  Well, the added material bought the preceding chapter up to twenty pages.  Which is, you'll recall, the standard length for one of my chapters.

Q. E. D.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.  Yesterday:  high-level literary doodling.  Be there or be square!


Friday, November 14, 2008

A Day at Bombay Hook

As always, things are busy here, and so I haven't yet gotten my crack tech crew (Sean) to restore the driver for my scanner, and so I can't show you the diagram for the chapter I'm currently at work on.  Monday for sure!

Last Tuesday Marianne and I drove down to Bombay Hook, a major birding hotspot in Delaware, to look at the snow geese.  And there they were, flickering through the sky in vast flocks, covering the ponds like drifts of snow on still land, making a gabble like New York City at rush hour.  People who speak of the silence of nature don't get out enough.

There were also many, many harriers, a sufficiency of great blue herons, and all those pintails and shovelers and black ducks and such that Marianne's nuts about.

A lovely November day -- and on the way out of the reserve, there was a sunbow!  I took many shots with my dinky little $120 camera, of which the best was the one above, showing the rightward arc, where it touched the horizon.

So those who say nothing ever happens in Smyrna, Delaware, are wrong.  Just this week they had a sunbow.

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.   This time, I discuss "Three Metafictionally Blind Recursive Mice."


Monday, November 10, 2008

Ducking the Bullet

It was a busy weekend (the Art Crawl and conversation at the Pen & Pencil Club on Friday; Tom Purdom's literary salon, eagle-watching at Conowingo dam, and dinner with friends on Saturday; a quick visit to Greg and Barbara Frost and then several hours driving about a cemetery, writing words on leaves on Sunday), and as a result I still haven't found the scan.

So instead, I'll reflect briefly on the fact that I've just ducked the bullet yet again.  The November issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction contains an essay by Fiona Kelleghan, defining a new literary group she either discovered or invented, called the Savage Humanists.  The essay originally appeared in The Savage Humanists, a critical anthology also edited by Kelleghan.  And, though I am mentioned a couple of times in it as somebody who might belong in the SH camp, no story by me made it into the anthology.

So I'm not a member of the group.

Which is good, because I don't really think I fit the definition very well.  Gregory Frost seems to be the true and perfect exemplar of kind -- unless it's James Morrow.  In any case, satire seems to be important to the category, and satire is just something I don't do.  Sorry.

In any case, this brings to four the number of literary movements I've been close enough to that outsiders sometimes mistakenly include me in, but whose core members will attest to my not belonging to the club.  These are:

New Weird
Savage Humanists
I do not include Mannerpunk, Interstitial Arts (though I've attended their meetings), or Slipstream, because nobody's ever claimed I belonged in any of them.

Interestingly enough, the one group I did belong to -- other than being a freak, back in the late sixties, I mean -- nobody ever thinks to list me as.  Anybody care to guess?

A review worth cherishing . . .

In that same issue of NYRSF, Ariel Hameon has a very long review of The Dragons of Babel which would make me blush, if I didn't agree with every word of it.    I make it a point never to thank anybody for a good review, because . . . well, because it's an insult to the reviewer to imply that the words are anything other than honest opinion.  

Still, I was glad to get it.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.  Most recently, the power of "No!"



Friday, November 7, 2008

Thought for the Day

I was going to post a scan of the diagram I drew for the chapter I'm currently working on for the Darger and Surplus novel today.  But I can't find where it got saved to, and the program that runs the scanner has disappeared from my computer so I can't simply scan it again, and my tech staff (aka my son, Sean) is off with his D&D buddies and won't be back until tomorrow afternoon.

So instead, I'll simply share a thought that comes from Not Quite What I Was Planning:  Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser.  I didn't read the book itself, mind you.  I read a review of it.  I think the book itself would drive me crazy, because I want to know a lot more about people than six words can convey.

Still, I did like what Jennifer Shreve wrote:  Blogging is easy, writing is hard.

As always, as always, as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour.   The most recent poem is intended, without sarcasm or ill-will, for everybody who's unhappy about the results of Tuesday's election.  I'm ecstatic, mind you.  But I still respect those who are not.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Yesterday's Discovery

Yesterday, Marianne and I went to Laurel Hill Cemetery, a mighty Victorian necropolis ("Or --" as the guide on the Glasgow bus tour used to say in his quite wonderful Scottish burr, before this estimable gent was replaced by a perfectly inadequate tape --"City . . . of the Dead!") to take photos of gravestones for a project that will come to fruition next year, in time for Halloween.  And look what we found!  The grave of Rocky Balboa's wife!  Cunningly placed so as to look as if it were in a plebian urban graveyard, rather than one of the jewels of its kind.

What a fabulous world this is!

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.  This time with the abbreviated version of Mr. Toad's imaginary garden.


Friday, October 31, 2008

A Creepy Halloween To All!

I wrote my traditional yearly Halloween story yesterday, and I was going to post it here for all to enjoy.  But when I read it to Marianne and Sean, I did such an over-the-top performance that they began bouncing up and down, and shouting "You have to podcast this!"

The problem here is that, having never posted a podcast myself, it'll take a day or two for me to learn how to do that thing.  And, today being today, and I being scheduled to go downtown and watch the Phillies victory parade (we won!  the pennant!  whoop!), there wasn't the time for that.  And you don't want to podcast a Halloween story after the occasion itself.

"Couldn't I just post the story tomorrow and then podcast it next year?" I asked.

"By then, everybody will have swapped your story around, and it'll look like you're just adapting another piece of copy pasta."


Well . . . next year, you're in for a treat.  Meanwhile, there's the photo of my 108-pound jack-o-lantern above.

How on earth do you move a 108-pound pumpkin, you ask?  Well, it turns out there's appropriate technology for everything.  You simply roll it onto an empty grain sack.  Then two people grab the ends of the sack and lift.  It moves simple as simple.

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.  Enjoy!


Monday, October 27, 2008

Asteroid Deflection Research Symposium 2008

Here's the short version:

About two weeks ago, an observer at the Catalina Sky Survey spotted a small meteor (c. 1 meter in diameter) headed straight toward Earth. The astronomical community was alerted and about 570 observations were made by 27 observers over the next nineteen hours. It exploded about 35 kilometers over northern Sudan with a force of about one kiloton.

2008 TC3 was the first meteoroid ever spotted before it reached Earth's atmosphere. On average, a meteoroid of its size hits our planet once a week. If one were to explode over New York City or Moscow, the military would have sophisticated enough technology to recognize it for a natural event, rather than enemy attack. Not all nations with nuclear weapons could do so.

Apophis is a medium-sized (c. 270 meters in diameter) asteroid which in 2029 will pass between the Earth and the Moon -- and a lot closer to the Earth than to the Moon. It will be closer to us than our geosynchronous satellites. Luckily, its orbit is out of the plane of our satellites so it won't disrupt them. Even more luckily, it won't hit our planet.

If Apophis did hit our planet, it would not cause a worldwide extinction event on the order of that which killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That would take a rock a kilometer in diameter or larger. It's estimated that we've cataloged roughly 90% of the Near Earth Asteroids of that size and none of them are poise any threat to us anytime in the foreseeable future.

However, a 340-meter asteroid like Apophis could cause enormous regional damage. Nobody really knows how much. Mark Boslough of Sandia Laboratory, however, calculates that the Tunguska Event may have been caused by a meteor as small as forty meters in diameter.

The American Congress recently mandated NASA to survey 90% of all Near Earth Objects of 240 meters in diameter or larger by the year 2020. Since NASA has twenty billion dollars of mandates and a seventeen billion dollar budget, this doesn't look likely to happen. They're working on it, but piggybacking the search on other sky scans.

There are a number of potential ways to deflect an asteroid or comet (you don't want to blow it up, because the chunks would still hit the Earth, with minimally diminished destructive force), some of which use off-the-shelf technology. Given an early enough warning and a few years' lead time, it could certainly be done.

Nobody has the responsibility to do so.

Under current protocols, if a large rock were headed toward the Earth, scientists would quickly identify it and report it. Follow-up analysis would be run to determine if it were an impactor. If it turned out to be one, the scientific community would perform more observations to update the orbit and publish those findings. This would continue in a cycle for as long as the object was on its way.

If the impactor was a serious threat to the planet, it is presumed that somebody would do something. Who that somebody is, though, and which of several options they would take, nobody knows.

All in all, a pretty nifty symposium.

Look! Up in the sky! It's a rocket! It's an award! It's . . .

. . . Willey Ley's Hugo. After the symposium, Marianne and I went to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International. The center is an overflow facility for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, and it's essentially a big hangar with lots of planes and spacecraft: A space shuttle, the Enola Gay, a couple of MiGs, and so.

Plus Willey Ley's Hugo. In a display case with other historically significant tchotchkes. Pretty damn cool.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Inside Scoop


Explanation: Last Friday I was off at the 2008 Asteroid Deflection Symposium, and discovered what prices the Hyatt wanted for simple access. So I called my son and asked him to post an explanation for why I wasn't blogging myself. "You can add something snarky of your own afterwards," I said.

Late Saturday, I came wearily home and said, "You posted to the blog, right?"

No. He'd written a post and saved it because he thought it was too negative.

I told him if it's honest, he should post it. Here's what he wrote:

So! Michael Swanwick is off at some convention or other, learning about how asteroids are going to destroy the planet, or the importance of planet destroying asteroids, or how violence between asteroid gangs often leads to asteroid slaughter. Because he's too cheap to shell out for the hotel's Internet access, you get his son, Sean Swanwick, instead.

So, he talks a lot about writing and being a writer, right? Not quite as glamorous as I'm sure he paints it. For one thing, this chair at his desk I'm sitting in right now seems to be a thick plastic bag wrapped around a bunch of metal bars. There are a few knobs that ostensibly adjust the thing, but they don't seem to do anything. The chair seems to drain the energy out of me, filling me with the urge to bunk off and eat a burrito.

Maybe this explains why I come home so often to find him reclined on his much nicer couch, a small towel draped gracefully over his eyes. "Hey, Dad," I'll say, "You asleep?"

"No," comes the muffled reply, "I'm writing." Well, awesome, good luck with that. Of course, this raises the question of why he chooses to discourage me from following his career by waking me up every time I try to 'write' past noon, but that's neither here no there.

And his desk? The keyboard is resting loosely on top of roughly two inches of manuscripts, paperbacks, and bits of wiring that goes to digital cameras. At the very bottom of the pile is a small hotplate, so when he grows tired of his workload he can simply switch it on and wait five minutes for the resulting fire to clear everything away again. Convenient, but when he does the monitor suffers smoke damage

The books, though, the books dominate the house. Every room save the kitchen has at least two bookshelves, and most of the shelves have two layers of books, one concealing the other. While this is an excellent way to hide your illicit gains from a diamond heist, mostly they're just huge piles of aging Science Fiction books. Not too long ago, one of the shelves in his office collapsed completely from the strain, covering the floor ankle deep in old, yellowing paperbacks. My (quite reasonable) suggestion to simply run a wood chipper through the affected area was rebuffed without even a second thought! Sometimes I wonder if he's taking my suggestions seriously at all.

I think the most telling little artifact within spitting distance is this bright pink Post-It note on the monitor. It reads, simply, "NO" in big, black letters. Apparently this is a reminder to my father to stop accepting new assignments--not to agree to write more features for magazines, not to agree to do more interviews, not to write news paper articles for recently deceased authors so they'll be honored a little more than, "Hack Star Trek Novelization Author Dies Embarrassingly." And I agree wholeheartedly, he should be taking on fewer responsibilities. They're cutting into his time writing on the couch.


Monday, October 20, 2008

A Terrifying Conversation

"I won't be writing anything more," my friend said.

"What?!" My friend was a serious writer, a significant writer, a writer with a following. True, there were some hard times commercially. My friend's most recent book was self-published. But -- never? "For real?"

"My last novel took so much out of me. Trying to sell it was an ordeal. There were so many times I thought I'd finally sold it, and then it would be rejected again. I just don't have any more energy. I can't do that to myself again."

"What will you do with yourself, then?"


Meanwhile, in a cheerier part of the world . . .

I've just received another starred review, this one from Library Journal, for The Best of Michael Swanwick, forthcoming from Subterranean Press any week now.

Here's the review:

Swanwick, Michael. The Best of Michael Swanwick. Subterranean. Oct. 2008. c.464p. ISBN 978-1-59606-178-1. $38. FANTASY

In one of Swanwick's earliest published short stories, a junior trade representative from Africa visits the United States, now ravaged by biochemical warfare, and is introduced to a uniquely American quasireligious ritual centering around the life of Janis Joplin ("The Feast of Saint Janis"). His most recent story, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled," takes place in a posthuman world where alien life celebrates and mourns its own creation myths. Spanning more than a quarter-century, the 21 short stories, including five winners of the coveted Hugo Award, demonstrate the author's breathtaking versatility and excellence of style. This first chronological overview of the short fiction by the author of The Iron Dragon's Daughter and The Dragons of Babel belongs in most libraries.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated. This time, it's a gloom-cookie by Housman.


Friday, October 17, 2008


Well, I'm off to Capclave, Washington DC's annual SF convention. The Author Guest of Honor is the legendary James Morrow, renowned among those who know him for also being one heck of a nice guy. The Critic Guest of Honor is the equally legendary Michael Dirda, also renowned among those who know him for being one heck of a nice guy. A bit of a coincidence there, but a pleasant one.

Here's the short appreciation I wrote of Michael for the program book:

Michael Dirda

So I was sitting with three renowned science fiction writers during the down time at a literary event – Books over Brattleboro or the Short Pump Literary Festival, something like that – and I mentioned that I’d just run into Michael Dirda. One of the three, and I probably shouldn’t mention any names, remarked that he hadn’t seem Dirda for some time. “Well, he hasn’t been to a science fiction convention for years,” I replied. “He told me he’d gafiated.”

My three friends almost choked.

Michael Dirda has serious literary credentials, after all. He graduated from Oberlin College with Highest Honors, and the following year taught English in Marseille, France on a Fulbright Fellowship. He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, and he’s received rather a lot of honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. He publishes in places like The New York Review of Books, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. His columns for the Washington Post Book World were one of the glories of that august institution. So what the heck was he doing using a piece of faanish slang like “gafiate”?

Quite simply, in the situation, gafiate (which, in case you don’t know, is a shortening of “getting away from it all,” and refers to the act of taking an extended holiday from either SF or fandom) was the mot juste for what Dirda meant. So he used it. The man is without pretension.

It is this quality that makes him such a fine reader.

Oh, Michael Dirda is a fine writer as well, with a lucid and compelling prose line. (And funny; if you doubt it, read his “Bookish Fantasies,” a cascade of thirty-five literary daydreams, including “Hey, Chip, this is Sherry down at the library. We’ve just gotten the new Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, and we were wondering whether you might like to take the old thirteen-volume set off our hands . . .” and “. . . pay you $10 a word . . .”) But that’s kind of a sine qua non in his line of business. It’s his special talent as a reader that makes his writings particularly valuable. He reads and enjoys books not by category or preconception but for what they actually are.

Consider his list of favorite authors: Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell and Jack Vance. Somebody who was trying to impress you might throw in Jack Vance, just to let you know how eclectic his tastes are. But John Dickson Carr? Only honest admiration could have compiled a lineup like that. In one of his books he wrote that it was his intent to encourage readers "to look beyond the boundaries of the fashionable, established, or academic." To read, that is, as he does, with passion and for pleasure.

He is, it almost goes without saying, a book collector, and a serious one. But that, and the fact that he once wrote a slim paperback titled Caring for Your Books, give you exactly the wrong impression of his priorities. I saw him once look up from an examination of the rather worn contents of Gardner Dozois’s bookshelves and exclaim, “Gardner, the books on your shelves all look so delightfully read!” He sees past the superficialities.

You an see for yourself why we dedicated Dirdaphiles have such a high opinion of him by checking out one of his books (Classics for Pleasure, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Bound to Please, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, and Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments) or his weekly online column, “Dirda on Books,” at

In a perfect world, the ability to read well would be particularly honored. Having him at Capclave as this year’s Critic Guest of Honor moves the world one tiny inch closer to perfection. Enjoy his presence here. That same clarity of expression found in his essays is also present in person. Michael Dirda is a terrific conversationalist.
He’s particularly good on the subject of books.


And, as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated. Andrew the Marvellous introduces Johnny the Great! Don't miss it.


Monday, October 13, 2008

The Uncanny Power of Words

Too often, we forget the extraordinary power that words have over human beings. They can start wars and revolutions, send young men off to the gold fields, lend courage to the dying, solace a broken heart. And on a lesser level...

Here's a passage from Samuel R. Delany's 1967 short story "Driftglass":

"Driftglass," I said. "You know all the Coca-Cola bottles and cut-crystal punch bowls and industrial silicon slag that goes into the sea?"

"I know the Coca-Cola bottles."

"They break, and the tide pulls the pieces back and forth over the sandy bottom, wearing the edges, changing their shape. Sometimes chemicals in the glass react with chemicals in the ocean to change the color. Sometimes veins work their way through in patterns like snowflakes, regular and geometric; others, irregular and angled like coral. When the pieces dry, they're milky. Put them in water and they become transparent again."
Forty years ago, this passage told me to pick up pieces of driftglass (or, as the stuff is called on the Jersey Shore, beach glass) whenever I was at the beach. I've been doing it -- as has Marianne, starting a year or two later -- ever since. Pictured above are some of the results; jars of driftglass, and other things as well... tiny driftbricks, Cape May diamonds, lost keys, you name it.

Mind you, the story didn't tell me to collect driftglass. In the story, collecting driftglass is a sad, useless thing that a sad, crippled man does. But the passage told me. And I obeyed.

That's the uncanny power words have over us.

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

It Lives!

Here it is at last, the distinguished thing.   Two copies of The Best of Michael Swanwick arrived in the mail today, which means, I assume that they're either available now to the general public or will be momentarily.

This will be a short as well as early post, because Marianne and I are driving up to Elk County tomorrow to look at the -- wait for it -- elk.  It should be great.  

Any potential burglars, however, are cautioned not to think they can take advantage of our absence.  The house will be protected by vicious attack gamers.  You've been warned!

And as always . . . 

The Poem du Jour has been updated.  Yesterday's incantatory little ditty was by Octavio Paz.  In the comments for the previous poem (by Horace), Mario and I discuss the perils of translation.  And this coming Saturday's poem will be posted on Sunday.  You can blame the elk for that.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008


If you amble over to The Drabblecast, you'll find brand-new podcasts of two pieces of flash fiction by Yours Truly -- Hush and Hark and Metasciencefiction. (Click here.) I'm really quite impressed by the job Norm Sherman did narrating them both. Which is higher praise than you'd think, because I'm extremely resistant to interpretations of my work that differ in any way from how it sounded in my head. Hush and Hark, in particular, had a very Edgar Alan Poe-esque treatment quite at odds with how I'd originally imagined the story. (I'd thought of it as more Dunsany-ish.) But it works beautifully, and it taught me something about my own creation. So, thanks, Norm.

I've only listened to one other "Drabblecast" -- that of Robert Reed's Floating Over Time, but it was also quite good. So I'll probably make listening to these podcasts a regular thing.

One minor correction, though: In the podcast, it's stated that Jason Van Hollander's Hush and Hark (above) was created as an illustration of my story. Quite the opposite. Jason sent me a copy of the picture, and I wrote the story for it.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour. This time with a poem to increase your snobbishness.


Monday, October 6, 2008

Why Not Sponsor the Literature You Love?

I am feeling perilously close to panic. Asimov's and Analog are converting their format to an L trim.

Okay, you say. What the heck is an L trim and why should it matter? Briefly, the magazines are going from 5.25" wide and 8.3125" high, with 144 pages, to a new size: 5.875" wide and 8.625" high, with only 112 pages. By changing the font size, the editors are able to limit the damage to the loss of a single short story per issue.

This is scary because the change of size was done in order to cut expenses. And magazines only make such penny-pinching moves when things are so tight that the very real possibility of going under looms on the horizon.

The reason we all should care is that not only are Asimov's and Analog and the other genre magazines the school in which young and talented writers master their trade, but the crucible in which new modes of fiction are created. (Cyberpunk, to take the easiest example, was created not in Neuromancer but in William Gibson's short fiction, mostly published in the Omni.) The science fiction and fantasy genres would be a lot drabber and less lively without the magazines.

If you'd like to make a positive difference for the literature you love, the single best thing you could do would be to subscribe to one of the magazines. I already subscribe to a couple of them and I'm sending in my check to a third tomorrow. You can subscribe to Asimov's here or to Analog here.

And if the two big guys are wobbly, you can bet the other magazines could use your money too. You can subscribe to Fantasy and Science Fiction here or to Realms of Fantasy here.

Keep in mind that this isn't charity. You'll be getting first look at some of the best short fiction being published today. And you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you're making a difference.

End of lecture. I promise not to do this often.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Neil Breezes Through

[above, l-r: Neil with broken finger, me, Gardner Dozois; photo by Kyle Cassidy]

Neil Gaiman breezed through town last night, bringing autumn in his wake, as by a special arrangement with the Seasonal Powers he does every year. He appeared at the Gershman Y to promote his newest work, The Graveyard Book. I was on my usual rounds, walking up and down the earth, and noticed an hour beforehand a line a block long waiting patiently in the rain. So, yeah, the man is a rock star.

Neil is so popular, in fact, that the crowds showing up for signings have gotten large enough to make such events physically painful for him. (In Brazil, 2000 people showed up for a signing, and he signed from four in the afternoon until two in the morning. His arm swelled up to twice its normal size and had to be iced down afterwards. Nobody should have to go through that.)

So on this tour, he's trying something different. Rather than him doing autographs, there's a table of pre-signed books for sale. To make up for that lack of human contact, he first reads an entire chapter of his book, a different chapter at each stop, in order, and each reading recorded on video and then put up on the Web, so that by the end of the tour you can see and hear him read the entire thing, if you wish. (I think a lot of people will.) Then there's an intermission, during which the trailer for the film version of Coraline is shown, and somewhere backstage Neil sorts through questions members of the audience have written on 3 by 5 cards. And finally he comes back and answers as many of those questions as he can in the time allotted him.

How did it work out in practice? Pretty damn brilliantly. It will surprise no one that he's a first-rate reader but -- trust me on this -- it's a lot harder than it looks. And he had the audience. They laughed at all the right places, they were tense at all the scary places. They were rapt. You can find the link for the video at Neil's blog.

As for the question-answering . . . I can't say Neil has the timing of a stand-up comedian, because that's not what he was doing. He was being more of a stand-up witty-and-charming-and-not-at-all-stuck-up-or-pretentious-ian. And, oh man, the audience ate it up. I was there with three young friends and they were perfectly satisfied with the experience.

Afterwards, Neil went out to dinner with a few of his pals, myself included. He said that for him the best part was answering the questions, because he never knew what was going to be asked, which made the experience fresh and interesting for him every time. So if anybody's wondering what he's really like, after the show's over . . . Well, he's pretty much the same as the guy you see on stage. You'd like him.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour with another Billy Collins poem and one by Czeslaw Milosz I covered on learning that he had died.


Monday, September 29, 2008

How To Get A Good Illo For Your Story

One of every writer's pet peeves is how difficult it can be to get a good illustration for your work. Granted, sometimes you luck out, the way Lucius Shepard did with the cover James Gurney painted for the issue of F&SF containing "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" or the way I did with Stephan Martiniere's painting for The Dragons of Babel. More commonly, though, you get a clunker like . . . well, discretion stills my tongue.

Which is why I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art here in Philadelphia and bought their poster for the really quite terrific R. Crumb show (which continues into December and is absolutely free -- so if you're local you have no excuse for missing it). Then I took it home and wrote the following story, or rather vignette, for it, and copied the story onto the poster itself. Which I then framed and leaned against the wall in my office.

So now I feel better.

Here's what I wrote:

The Three Graces

The three Graces met for drinks in the West Village, as they did once every other year in October, when the city looked its best. This year it was in Zanzibar Blue, Le Wine Bar having faded into that same fog of nostalgia and failing memories which had swallowed up a long line of watering holes all the way back to Tangerine Dream, their original place back in the Sixties when they danced together.

“Here’s to kick-ass old women!” said Grace Zagajewski. The Graces clicked their drinks – two Manhattans and a chardonnay – over the center of the table.

Then Grace Harrelson dug through her purse. “I was going through Richard’s things after he died, and guess what I found.” She carefully unfolded a telephone pole flyer for “Psychedelicious,” their last off-off-Broadway show together. “Remember this?”

“How could I forget?” Grace Feinstein said. “Bad choreography, pretentious Moog synthesizer music, a malfunctioning fog machine, and we were all as naked as jaybirds!”

They all but collapsed in laughter. “It’s funny now, but we took it so seriously then,” Grace Harrelson said. “We were going to knock Martha Graham off of her perch.”

“That was when you met Richard,” Grace Zagajewski said. “He came to every performance and he never looked at Grace or me. Not once. And we looked pretty good back then, too.”

“Oh God we were perfect then.”

“We were.”

“More than perfect.”

“Ah me," Grace Feinstein said. "Where did all the years go?”

“Most of them I spent on men and drugs and booze and partying. The rest, I fear, I wasted.”

“I gave them all to Richard. I know you never liked him . . .”

“Never liked him? You have no idea how Grace and I envied you. When I think of all the chaos I’ve been through, the divorces, the affairs, the scenes, I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat.”

“I’d trade places with Grace. She stayed true to her muse. She’s still an artist.”

“I’m a teacher, dear. It’s not the same thing.”

“It is! All I have now are the place in Queens, the condo in Denver and the grandchildren. I love the little buggers, but . . . I just wish I could have stayed with dance, like you did.”

“Hah! You forget what a grind it is – and how drab. Frankly, I envy Grace’s chaos – all those adventures, all that freedom.”

They all laughed in a complex blend of emotions that had taken a lifetime to distill. Wiping the tears from her eyes, Grace flagged down their waiter and ordered a final round of drinks and the check.

“I don’t suppose we were really as pretty as we thought we were,” Grace said wistfully. “But we were young and so of course the boys wanted us. My students are all so muscular – they have abs like oak boards. You could hammer a nail into them. By today’s standards, our bodies were soft and pudgy.”

“Are you nuts?” Grace drained her drink to the dregs. “We were gorgeous!”

-- Michael Swanwick


Friday, September 26, 2008

Society's Child

I've had a fascinating life
Had a husband and a wife
But you will truly be amazed
at just how humble I have stayed
-- "My Autobiography"

I've been reading Society's Child, Janis Ian's autobiography, because . . . well, because whenever somebody I know personally writes an autobiography, I read it.  And the short version is that if you have any interest at all in Janis Ian, then you want this book.

Janis was famous at thirteen and a has-been by seventeen.  She won Emmys.  She sold out Carnegie Hall.  She was good pals with Janis Joplin.  Racists hated her.  As a teen, she used to jam late into the night in small clubs with Jimi Hendrix.  So she's got that fantasy identification thing going on here.  But a lot of bad things happened to her as well.  There were times when I wanted to reach into the past and grab people and shake them.  For God's sake, what were they thinking?  She was only a child.

The book ends with the lyrics of her self-mocking song about writing an autobiography.   (You'd have to be formed by the ideals and nonsense of the Sixties to understand why this was necessary.)  But with all the ups and downs -- and it's a real roller coaster ride -- Janis really has led a fascinating life, and in Society's Child she manages to convey the essence of how it felt to her.

It does make me feel a little dowdy and ordinary reading it, though.  I can't help remembering the time, years ago, when Jack Dann told me how he felt after reading Thomas Mann's autobiography, wherein, Jack said, Mann was forever going to India to study under a famous guru or to Africa to meet somebody important.  "When I write my autobiography," Jack said glumly, "it's going to read:  'And then I went to Disclave.'"

Oh, and also . . .

There's quite a nice interview with Michael Andre-Druissi about his Lexicon Urthus at Ultan's Library, self-described as "a resource for the study of Gene Wolfe."  I recommend it.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour.  This time it's a rather better poem by Carl Sandburg.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Favorite Closing Lines

It was a social weekend -- Purdom's Rangers on Saturday and tea on Sunday at Greg and Barbara Frost' s house, along with Jason Van Hollander and his wife Terry.    But despite the above photo, of myself and the Dean of Philadelphia Science Fiction, the great Tom Purdom himself, I'm not going to blog about any of that.

I just got a tattered ex-library copy of Mervyn Wall's The Return of Fursey in the mail this morning, and it ends with one of the best final sentences for a comic novel I've ever encountered.  After the sort of hugger-mugger that makes a man glad he lives in our gentle and welcoming world rather than in fiction, Wall pulled the metaphoric camera way, way back for a long shot over the centuries:

"Last spring I walked the road from Clonmacnoise to Cashel, and then from Cashel to The Gap.  Fursey and the others are still there, trampled into the earth of road and field these thousand years."

Man, isn't that lovely?  Doesn't it just break your heart? 

I can't think of a better ending for a comic novel.  But I'm willing to entertain the possibility.  Can anybody here one-up Wall?

And as always . . .

. . . I've updated Poem du Jour.   Billy Collins Rides Again!


Friday, September 19, 2008


My contributor's copy of The Living Dead (Night Shade Books; edited by John Joseph Adams) arrived in the mail yesterday, and it looks pretty good. Better than pretty good, actually. It's got Kelly Link's "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" and Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie" and a collaboration I'd somehow managed to miss between Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. Plus all the usual suspects. If you're interested in zombies, you want this book.

And, as it turns out, you should be interested in zombies. I was stuck on a zombie panel at the last Boskone and it turned out to be extremely informative. George Romero created not only a new monster but something perilously close to a new archetype. Which turns out to be an almost inexhaustable metaphor for pretty much anything you want. So . . . a surprisingly productive corner of the genres.

I found a clip of the panel at YouTube. Unfortunately, it was something like my fourth program item in a row so by that point I appeared to be channeling Woody Allen's stuttering, staccato delivery. Also, I'm eating my supper as we talk. I mean, really, dude. That's just plain bad manners.

And, as always . . .

. . . Poem du Jour has been updated. This time, it's the poem that killed Ossip Mandelstam. Poetry is not for sissies!