Friday, December 30, 2016

A Story: Part 2

As an experiment, I'm writing a story online, starting with a paragraph I came up with and then incorporating suggestions for what might come next from whoever cares to make them. No idea whether the story will ever be finished.

Here's the original paragraph:

The city had been frozen in time. The moon hung, a thin disk of ice, in the afternoon sun. Birds were motionless specks in the sky. You could climb the smoke billowing from its chimneys halfway up to heaven and there discover an unimaginable nation just an hour's effort above the mundane world.

And here's the continuation, based on yesterday's ideas and suggestions:

Gehenna Immaculata stared at the city from the vantage of the topmost branches of the tallest oak in the adjacent forrest. She had no history or philosophy or even peasant morality to help her put what she saw in context. She was illiterate.

She only knew what she wanted.

So now we have a situation and a protagonist. Next up: motivation and action. What does young Gehenna want? Where has she come from? And what does she do next?

I await your input.

And next week...

I'll be switching this over to a weekly post because I have so many other things to celebrate in my life. But it's beginning to look like an interesting exercise, I think. Let's see how far we can take it.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Story: Part 1

So. This "crowdsourcing" thing. Is it any good? I have my doubts. But let's not be hasty.

As an experiment, I'm going to post here the opening paragraph to a story that I came up with just now. I solicit your suggestions for what comes next.

So long as what you guys come up with helps move the thing along, I'll post new segments. When it fails to do so, I'll stop.

I have no more idea than you do what the outcome will be.

Here's the first paragraph:

The city had been frozen in time. The moon hung, a thin disk of ice, in the afternoon sun. Birds were motionless specks in the sky. You could climb the smoke billowing from its chimneys halfway up to heaven and there discover an unimaginable nation just an hour's effort above the mundane world.

Got it? Go!


Monday, December 26, 2016

A Traditional, Old-Fashioned Boxing Day


Ah, Boxing Day! Decades ago, Marianne and I were in Toronto for Boxing Day immediately before a change in the tax laws that was going to make everything more expensive, starting on January 1. Knowing the world-class shopping event that was about to begin, we slipped out of the city in the early hours of the morning and spent the day in an almost-deserted national park. In the evening, we came back and wandered through empty streets, staring into the windows of shoe stores with exactly three shoes remaining (none mated), clothing stores that were nothing but empty shelves and wire hangars flung to the floor, and similar scenes of commercial desolation. I saw a splash of color on the sidewalk and discovered that somebody had lost a new-bought scarf -- quite a nice one. So I wrapped it around my neck and walked on. I still have that scarf.

There are times -- usually involving shopping or watching television with relatives -- when I suspect that Marianne and I are not Americans at all.

So today we're off to celebrate Boxing Day not the traditional way but our traditional way. By going birding.

And because you deserve something of substance...

I've posted above a photograph of the shadow of a little girl demon, left behind on the sidewalks of Roxborough.

Above: Photograph copyright 2016 by Michael Swanwick


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas in Old Winooski


The snow fell soft and heavy that Christmas Eve of my long ago youth. The world was so silent you could hear an angel sigh. My father’s Chevrolet drove slowly and cautiously down Lafountain Street, the snow before us untouched and the snow behind bearing a single set of tire tracks, our own.

Every year I remember a little less. So I shall share this memory with you now, before it fades into oblivion, and me after it.

Christmas is a holy day of obligation. My mother, my father, and I were on our way to midnight Mass at Saint Stephen’s Church. My older sister Patty was in nursing school. Mary and Jack were home asleep. Sitting in the back seat of the car, I was acutely aware of the honor of being allowed up so late. I could tell my mother was concerned about the state of the roads, but she said nothing.

The sky was low. The houses we passed were dark. We three might have been the only people on earth. Yet as we drew closer to the church, other cars appeared in surprising number and when we arrived, the gravel lot was filling in fast. Solemnly, we entered the church.

The king of Northumbria was converted to Christianity when a missionary compared life to a sparrow which has flown out of the night through a banquet hall window to find itself briefly surrounded by light and warmth and color and music before flying out the window opposite into darkness and mystery again. Such is my memory of that Mass, all candles and incense and choir music, diminished only slightly by my worry that our car might get stuck on the way home.
Then we were outside again, our breaths white puffs of steam in the winter air. It was still snowing but during the service somebody had shoveled out the lot and the entrance to the street. The road, however, was choked with snow and looked more dangerous than ever. We got into the car and made our way, sliding slightly, to the street.

Just as we were about to turn, a car came fishtailing down the hill and lurched to a sudden stop before us. The driver leaned out his open window, face red and puffy, to drunkenly shout, “Merry Christmas!”

My father rolled down his window and, smiling, called back, “Merry Christmas to you too, sir!”
That was my father.

That was my childhood as well, in all its ordinary glory. That was Christmas in Old Winooski in a time that is fading slowly, inexorably, into the relentless snows of the past, growing dimmer and harder to see with each passing year. I hope that your every holiday, whatever you celebrate will, now and always, be every bit as happy, every bit as rich, and every bit as blessed too.

Above: I couldn't find a picture of the interior of St. Stephen's so the interior of St. Francis Xavier, the other Catholic church in Winooski, will have to do. "Christmas in Old Winooski" is copyright 2015 by Michael Swanwick.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Pirate Utopia


Novellas seem to be pretty popular nowadays. Tor has a strong line of them and so does Tachyon Publications. That's one of the latter's up above.

Bruce Sterling has always had a complicated relationship with science fiction. He has a particular brilliance for writing the stuff and a noted loathing for its conventions. This explains much about Pirate Utopia, which is almost not SF and yet should prove eminently satisfactory to genre readers.

The Free State of Fiume was a real thing. Fiume was a port city which was seized by troops led by the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. Very briefly, it became an attempted Futurist utopia.

The novella explores this strange phenomenon through the lens of the single worst member of the new government, exposing along the way the seductively poisonous appeal of fascism. At the end, after the inevitable has played out, Harry Houdini appears with two alt-historical pulp writers to implicate science fiction and fantasy literature in the in the whole mess.

It really is quite brilliant.

Tachyon has packaged this story with an introduction by Warren Ellis, a Cast of Characters explaining the historical figures behind the story, an afterword by Christopher Brown, an interview with Sterling himself (by Rick Klaw), and notes on the book's design by John Coulthart. Taken all together, they raise the book to the status of Event.

Coulthart's cover and illustrations must be singled out for particular praise. Based on Fortunato Depero's graphics, they capture the energy and zest of Futurist art and the dangerous appeal that the movement had. I can't think of a better marriage of image and text than here.

Oh, and the postage stamp showing a line of daggers in clenched fists? That was a real thing too.


Happy holidays, everyone! Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Blissful Solstice. Whatever your holidays, may they be bright with joy.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Forgotten SF: Clifford D. Simak's Highway of Eternity


Important writer though he was, Clifford Simak's novels grew looser and more shambolic as he aged. Highway of Eternity, a book I read recently because it was at hand and I was too sick for anything more serious, is a good example of this. A family of fugitives is hiding in a bubble of time in the Thirteenth Century. They are refugees from One Million Years in the Future. And their names...?

They are David, Emma, Horace, Timothy and Enid. The Evans family. Surprisingly little changes in the next million years, apparently

The plot is a rambling, arbitrary mess. Multiple suspensions of disbelief are required to keep it going. The implications of the enabling technologies are pretty much ignored. Stucturally, Highway of Eternity is a hot mess.

And yet... There are two good bits in it.  One comes after Boone, the protagonist, kills an assassin-bot in pre-human North America. As he is surveying the wreckage:

The monster spoke inside his mind.
Mercy, it said.
"The hell with you," said Boone, speaking before astonishment could dry up his speech.
Don't leave me here, the monster pleaded. Not in this wilderness. I did no more than my job. I am a simple robot. I have no basic evil in me.

And later another character, Corcoran, in the far future sees something unexpected:

There was a strangeness about the ridge top -- a faint haziness (...) He slowed his walking, came to a halt, and stood staring up at the haziness that was beginning to assume the form of a gigantic, circular, free-standing staircase winding up the sky.
Then he saw that he was wrong. The staircase was not free-standing; it wound around a massive tree trunk. And the tree -- good God, the tree! The haziness was going away and he could see it more clearly now. The tree thrust upward from the ridge top, soaring far into the sky, not topping out, but continuing upward as far as he could see, the staircase winding round it, going up and up until the tree trunk and the staircase became one thin pencil line, then vanished in the blue.

Both those moments evoke that most hoary of science fiction virtues -- the sense of wonder. A little of which can make up for a great deal of what otherwise was a terrible waste of time.

Beginning writers should take note.

And since I was wrong...

I learned sometime after writing the above that Highway of Eternity is available as n e-book from Open Road Media, who also make available a great many other Simak books in e-form.

So I was wrong, and glad to be proved so.


Friday, December 16, 2016

The Parable of the Creche


This year's Christmas chores have been tumbling one on top of another, so I'm running a little late today. Nevertheless, it's time to present my annual re-telling of something that really did happen, exactly as I tell it here. This traditional Christmas tale I call...

The Parable of the Creche
When first I came to Roxborough, a third of a century ago, the creche was already a tradition of long standing.  Every year it appeared in Gorgas Park during the Christmas season. It wasn't all that big -- maybe seven feet high at its tip -- and it wasn't very fancy. The figures of Joseph and Mary, the Christ child, and the animals were a couple of feet high at best, and there were sheets of Plexiglas over the front of the wooden construction to keep people from walking off with them. But there was a painted backdrop of the hills of Bethlehem at night, the floor was strewn was real straw, and it was genuinely loved.
It was a common sight to see people standing before the creche, especially at night, admiring it.  Sometimes parents brought their small children to see it for the first time and that was genuinely touching.  It provided a welcome touch of seasonality and community to the park.
Alas, Gorgas Park was publicly owned, and it was only a matter of time before somebody complained that the creche violated the principle of the separation of church and state.  When the complaint finally came, the creche was taken out of the park and put into storage.
People were upset of course. Nobody liked seeing a beloved tradition disappear.  There was a certain amount of grumbling and disgruntlement.
So the kindly people of Leverington Presbyterian Church, located just across the street from the park, stepped in. They adopted the creche and put it up on the yard in front of their church, where it could be seen and enjoyed by all.
But did this make us happy?  It did not. The creche was just not the same, located in front of a church.  It seemed lessened, in some strange way, made into a prop for the Presbyterians. You didn’t see people standing before it anymore.
I was in a local tappie shortly after the adoption and heard one of the barflies holding forth on this very subject:
"The god-damned Christians," he said, "have hijacked Christmas."


Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Rough New Beast That Will Be Election 2020


I was in junior high school that I realized how easy it was to extrapolate the future. Coca-cola cost a penny an ounce then. Eight cents for an eight ounce bottle, a dime for a ten ounce bottle, and so on. Then the ten ounce bottles disappeared from the vending machines, replaced by eight ounce bottles -- still costing a dime. In a flash, I saw that the price of Coke would be twenty cents within the year and a quarter not long after. I told this to a friend and he said, "You're nuts!"

It all happened, of course.

Much later, when ATM machines first appeared, I read the description of how they worked and pondered how you could prevent someone from making a fake deposit into a nearly empty account and then withdrawing the same amount in cash. "Of course!" I thought. "They don't credit the deposit until they see it." It was blindingly obvious.

A week later, the newspaper recounted that the fancy new machines were being reprogrammed not to credit deposits until a human being had actually seen them. Because they had discovered that scammers were making fake deposits. That was when I realized how rare it is for people in authority to make even the simplest extrapolations of the future.

So it's not in the spirit of partisanship but in the spirit of the blindingly obvious that I want to look at the next American presidential election four years from now.

The CIA has stated that the Russian government interfered in the most recent election. Accounts vary at this point. They certainly hacked into DNC computers and leaked documents that either were doctored or didn't have to be. They seem to have sponsored a flood of very savvy fake news sites. Some even claim they monkeyed where they could with electronic voting machines. (This is trickier because many machines aren't linked to the Web, rendering them close to unhackable and those that are don't have a single unified system, making the prospect expensive. But, where it matters, the Kremlin has very deep pockets.)

I am wary of the CIA. But I believe them in this case for two reasons: 1) Trump will be the next President, no matter what; there's simply not enough time to put together a case that would make the Electoral College not appoint him. 2) If the CIA were lying, then they would be committing an act of treason -- something they must surely know the next administration would take unkindly.

So. Russia committed what might technically be called an act of war. Let's leave it to the historians to argue whether it worked or Trump would have won handily without it. The issues are bigger than that now.

Whatever the facts, the Russian bureaucracy is going to believe they turned the election. Why? Because they threw a lot of money at it and they have to justify the expenditures. The cyberwarriors of other nations are going to believe it too. Why? Because the  stakes are too high not to.

Most likely nothing serious will happen to Russia as a result. This will send a message to the world.

The US is still the biggest, richest, most dangerous nation on Earth. Every nation has a stake in who sets its policies. So four years from now, we can pretty confidently expect China to involve its cyberwarriors even more heavily in the election than Russia did in this one. They'd be fools not to.

Other nations I'm not so sure about. Israel? India? Germany? Japan? Saudi Arabia? Realpolitik says they all should. Various considerations might hold some of them back. At least until the 2024 elections.

But we're facing the possibility of the first American election in which the voters are minority stakeholders.

And I want to emphasize...

I'm not arguing politics here. Just stating the obvious.

And tomorrow...

The return of a holiday tradition.

Above: Not necessarily the future US electorate.I took this image from You can find their site and maybe buy a flag here.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Return of The Fall of the Towers


My title above sounds frivolous, I admit, like something you might slap on the cover of a Lord of the Rings parody. But it neatly sums up a piece of good news for Samuel R. Delany's many admirers, particularly the well-heeled book collectors among them.

Delany's early science fiction trilogy, The Fall of the Towers, is being reissued by Centipede Press half a century after their original publication. It will be published in three distinct dustjacketed volumes, with all of the original forewords and afterwords, new artwork by David Ho, and an introduction by (cough) me.

Chip Delany was one of my earliest literary heroes and his work has never fallen in my esteem. So this was a pretty big deal for me.

Here's how my introduction begins:

Context is necessary. The nineteen year old who began writing Out of the Dead City, the first volume of The Fall of the Towers, lived in a country very different from the one we now inhabit. Men wore hats and women petticoats. Computers were intimidating behemoths that filled rooms and had laughably little processing power. Clothing, houses, and consumer packaging were all much drabber than what we are now used to. Homosexuality was thought of as a rare mental illness. People of color were treated as second-class citizens.

There was nothing in any of the above to prevent a young, queer Negro (these are the terms he himself would have used) from deciding to write a trilogy of novels – or, rather, a novel in three books – exploring the economic origins of war and the distorting effects it has on society. But at a time when black SF writers did not advertise their race and gay SF writers kept a lower profile than Delany was willing to do, it would require moxie...

By necessity, the set is not exactly cheap. You can preorder one right now for $150. Which is not a bad price for three beautifully-made hardcover volumes issued in an edition of 300 copies each.

So either you need a set or you don't. If you're in the first category, you know who you are. If you're in the second, you can find the original paperbacks easily enough -- and they include Chip's l forewords and afterwords. I think I did a pretty good job with my own intro. But there's no getting around the fact that the single best explicator or Samuel R. Delany's fiction has always been the man himself.

You can find the preorder page here.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My Favorite Government Form


My favorite government form? That's easy. It's the one shown up above: Optional Form 60 (10-71). Also known by its Government Printing Office number GPO 1972 p-460-299.

It is a government-certified blank page. Accept no substitutes.

And as always...

I'm on the road again. I'll have a report for you when I get back.


Monday, December 5, 2016

Classics Illustrated: The Last Day of July


I ran across this while going through some old papers. Believe it or not, there's a Kliban cartoon which, by changing a single name, neatly summarizes a classic Gardner Dozois story. So I made that change.

And for no particular reason...

My old buddy Mike Resnick (seven times voted Most Likely to Cheat Me Out of a Hugo) recently had this to say about Hugo Gernsback:

The first guy to define science fiction was Hugo Gernsback, the man who created the first all-science-fiction magazine (Amazing Stories, back in April, 1926). He’s the guy our most prestigious award is named after, even though he had some difficulty speaking English, clearly couldn’t edit it, and usually refused to pay for it except on threat of lawsuit.

You won't find a more succinct or accurate summation of the man than that!


Friday, December 2, 2016

Donald Trump The Magazine of Poetry


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last...
         -- William Butler Yeats

Almost fifty years ago, in 1968,  Pamela Zoline and John Sladek, with help from Thomas Disch, edited a one-shot poetry zine titled Ronald Reagan The Magazine of Poetry. It holds a certain place in our cultural memory if for no other reason than its including J. G. Ballard's scabrous masterpiece, "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan."

Now, one 48-year gyre later, possibly out of jeu d'esprit, possibly out of simple naughtiness, Temporary Culture  has published Donald Trump The Magazine of Poetry.

I was offered the opportunity to contribute but, not being a poet, didn't see a place for myself in the magazine's pages. But after the fact it occurred to me that something I wrote in college would have filled the bill quite nicely. Since the original magazine was a one-shot, it seems unlikely we'll ever see a second issue of its inspired offspring.

That being the case, I present my poem in its entirety below:


Excuse me while I slit my

Collectors and patrons of poetry can find the ordering information here.

Above: Henry Wessells and accomplice celebrating the magazine's launch in New York City. Envoi is copyright 2016 by Michael Swanwick.


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.