Monday, December 11, 2017

The Parable of the Creche

.



It's that time of year again, the one we call Almost Christmas. Which, as we all know, is the time when this blog traditionally presents...


The Parable of the Creche
When first I came to Roxborough, over 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 is public property, 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. One might evensay disgrumblement.
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 don'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 7, 2017

A Birder's Christmas Carol

.


I was in Bombay Hook yesterday and it was a great day for birding. All told, Marianne and I saw nine bald eagles, including two in a tree (above) we could hear speaking to each other and a pair in courting flight. You really need to see two together to fully appreciate what spectacular fliers they are. Also several thousand snow geese, many great blue herons, some quite closeby, a variety of other birds, and a red fox!

So I am happy.

To celebrate, I took a classic Christmas carol and adopted it for birders. You know how the song goes, so I'm only going to give you the final round:


The Twelve Days of Christmas Birding

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love spotted these:
Twelve turkeys drumming
Eleven peeps a-piping
Ten lapwings larking
Nine quails a-dancing
Eight doves a-mourning
Seven mute swans swimming
Six geese a-laying
FIVE SNOWY OWLS!
Four peregrines
Three black ducks
Two godwits
And an eagle in a bare tree

                           -- Michael Swanwick


Above: Photo by M. C. Porter. Photo and poem are both issued under a Creative Commons license. You are free to use them for noncommercial purposes, so long as credit is retained. And you can change the words of the carol. That's how I came up with it myself.


*

Friday, December 1, 2017

Two Roads Diverged...

.


My friend and occasional editor, Gabrielle Wei, knowing of my fondness for writing on leaves, sent me the above picture of a ginkgo leaf. I was touched, of course, but also reminded of a true story.

This happened to a neighbor of my family's, back when we lived in Winooski, Vermont. She was out driving, one day, on a lonely country road, when she came to an intersection. She stopped at the stop sign and started forward.

Just then, a maniac driving far too fast for the road, blasted through the intersection, ignoring the stop sign entirely.

Both drivers slammed on their brakes. They missed colliding by inches. The driver who had been going too fast turned to look back and glared at my neighbor in fury. Then he put his foot on the accelerator and sped away.

And our neighbor recognized him.

She told us the next day that she sat in her car for several minutes, shivering, and reflecting on the headline that would have been printed the next day, had she not braked in time:

WINOOSKI WOMAN KILLS ROBERT FROST

Every word of this story is true. Had it been a fiction, I'm pretty sure there would have been an implicit moral to it.


And as long as we're talking about leaves...

Here's a picture I took of the water trough outside the thatched cottage of Du Fu in Chengdu. It looks like I left out a couple of strokes in the great poet's name, but that's just a trick of the light. I copied it out very carefully.



*


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Foreword, A Season, An Afterword

.



Monday's post on Dragonstairs Press's two new (and one old) chapbooks ran so long that I didn't have the chance to present any excerpts. A failing that I will correct right now.

The preface to Midwinter Fables:


That scandalous old slave, Aesop, having spent his youth as secretary to his master, and his middle years as the freed commercial ambassador of the same man, found himself living in a cold stone hut in the mountains. One day, his scribbling was interrupted by a woman who claimed to be his granddaughter, looking to discover what sort of man he was. 

“How do I know what you say is true?” Aesop asked. 

The woman cast a scornful glance at her surroundings. “My father is a successful wine merchant in Syracuse. Why would I lie?” 

“Very well,” the fabulist said. “Listen to these stories I have just now written.”

A season from 5 Seasons:


                                                           Winterthaw 

I crave thy pardon, mistress, that I did try to eat thee.  It were the Darkwinter, when we all do what we must to survive.  I understand why thou dost flinch from my touch.

Still.  Didst thou not kill thy sister, who did love thee, when the foodstuffs ran low?  Not that I disapprove.  It were the right thing to do, God wot.  Hunger knows no morals.  I did the same with my father, poor soul.

Those dire times are behind us.  The snows are melting at last.  We can scrabble in the mud for last year’s roots, and perhaps a small rodent or three.  We keep our knives sharp and close to hand, of course, because we each know what the other is capable of.

Now the ice turns back into pond water.  The air is warm.  Desperation falls a day, a second day, a third into the past.  Now at last – though I grip my blade as firmly as thou dost thine – I am free to say...

I do love thee.

And the afterword to Touchstones:


A touchstone, literally, is a stone used to test the purity of gold. Metaphorically, it is the test of the truth of any particular statement. But in the heart, a touchstone is whatever connects us to our deepest and truest values.

When you travel, you carry a little bit of your home with you as a sort of touchstone. For my third trip to Chengdu, I brought these three stories, which exist in physical form in my house. The first is written on a jar filled with keys and is partly true and partly not. The second is written on a framed sheet of paper behind a Mason jar filled with mineral oil, scrap electronic parts, and a rubber eyeball. It is an homage to Ray Bradbury and completely fictional. "Lovers and Lunatics" is written on a crescent moon shaped wall lamp. It is a love letter to my wife and every word of it is tru

"A Jarful of Keys" was published on my blog in 2009. The other two stories appear here for the first time.

Home, family, fantasy, and love. These stories are touchstones for what matter to me most. I hope they give you pleasure.

And since you asked . . .

The Dragonstairs chapbooks -- slim, elegant, and seriously underpriced -- can be found here.


Above: Winter leaves.

*

Monday, November 27, 2017

Three From Dragonstairs!

.



There are two new chapbooks available from Dragonstairs Press, which is (this needs to be said occasionally) not my but Marianne Porter's tabletop publishing empire. These are handmade, hand-stitched labors of love. And if you go to the Dragonstairs website, you'll see that these things sell out pretty handily.

One reason for this is the price. When Marianne started making chapbooks, I asked around for how much she should charge and got two contradictory pieces of advice. Lawrence Person said, "Anything more than ten dollars and it stops being an impulse buy." But David Hartwell said, "Start at fifty dollars. Anything less and the serious collectors won't touch it." I relayed both remarks to Marianne who, horrified at the thought of soaking her customers, decided she would sell to frivolous collectors only. I personally harbor the belief that somewhere twenty or thirty years down the line, these will turn out to be very good investments indeed.

But mostly it's because they're lovely items.

They are:

Midwinter Fables by Michael Swanwick
Four of Aesop's fables, retold. Edition of 110 copies, signed and numbered.
Six dollars in the U. S. Seven dollars elsewhere.

This is my annual Solstice chapbook, created last December but only just now available to buy. The Dragonstairs site will tell you there are 34 copies available, but since they went on sale yesterday, there are actually only 24. These always sell out before Christmas so if you want one for that special bibliophile on your gift list, you'd best move fast.

And:

Touchstones by Michael Swanwick
Three personal stories (one previously published on Flogging Babel) and an afterword. Published in an edition of 50, to mark Swanwick's participation in the Fourth Chengdu International Science Fiction Conference.

Roughly half of these were given away to friends and colleagues in China. The Dragonstairs site says that 24 are available, but currently the number is 14.

Also still available is:

Five Seasons by Michael Swanwick. Five short short stories, independent but interrelated. Edition of 100, signed and numbered.

I don't ordinarily issue a caution about my own fiction, but since this is the holiday season, I ought to mention that these stories -- written to meet a challenge to divide the year into five seasons -- came out a little grim. That said, I think they're pretty damn glorious. Dragonstairs would have you believe that 28 are available. The actual number is 24.

You can find the Dragonstairs website here.  And while you're looking, why not scroll down to see all the cool stuff no longer available for sale?





Above top: All three publications on the Dragonstairs office rug. Immediately above: The Barefoot Publisher herself, assembling packages to be mailed out.

*

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Season Begins

.



When I was a boy in Winooski, Vermont, there was an unspoken rivalry in the neighborhood over who got their Christmas lights up first. Nobody, of course, put up lights before Thanksgiving. That would be rushing the season and absurd to boot.

But one year my mother, who had a strong artistic streak, carved our pumpkins and, instead of candles, put a colored electric bulb in each. The kind that went on Christmas trees, one orange and one yellow. They looked great. If you carve your own pumpkins, I recommend you try it some year.

We didn't know that down at the bottom of the street, a competitive soul looked up and, since it was too distant to see the pumpkins, saw only the colored lights.

The next year in early October, a week before we set out pumpkins, our competitive neighbor had his house covered with Christmas lights!

All of which is prelude to this:

Today we -- by which, of course, I mean Marianne -- put out our Christmas lights. That's a picture of some of them up above.

*

Friday, November 3, 2017

And As Always...

.



I'm on the road again! I'm off to the Fourth China International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province and, not coincidentally, the home city of Science Fiction World. Which has, as its many friends like to point out, the largest readership of any science fiction magazine in the world.

I will do my best to keep in touch. But the winds of politics are fickle and the Great Firewall is no joke.  So I can guarantee nothing. I think I've found an honest and legal workaround. We shall see. If it doesn't work, I'll share my adventures with you upon my return.

With me safe travels!

*

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sales! Sales! Sales!

.



Despite my blog's title, I don't flog my books all that often here. I have publishers to do that for me. But a good deal is a good deal, so when my stuff is put on sale, I figure I have an obligation to those who might want to read it. So here goes.

(I'll pause for a second to put on my straw hat and grab my cane. And...)

Good news for ebook bargain hunters!  Open Road Media, my favorite ebook publisher, has just announced a binge of one-day-only sales of my books. It begins with Vacuum Flowers being featured in The Portalist's weekly deals newsletter, on this coming Sunday, November 5. The ebook will be downpriced to 1.99 across all US retailers on that day.

But that’s only the beginning! Vacuum Flowers will be featured in Early Bird Books (EBB), Open Roads Media’s daily deals newsletter, on November 17. The ebook will be downpriced to 1.99 across all US retailers on that day and that day only.

And that’s still not all! Bones of the Earth, In the Drift, and Vacuum Flowers will be featured in The Portalist on November 19. Again, the ebooks will be downpriced to 1.99 across all US retailers on that day.

Remember, these are one-day-only deals. So if you read e-books and you’re curious about any of the above titles, mark it down on your e-calendars.


You can subscribe to EBB here so that you'll get the direct link to the deal on the day that it appears in the newsletter.

You can subscribe to The Portalist, the premier digital destination for fans of science fiction and fantasy, here so that you’ll get the direct link to the deal on the day that it appears in the newsletter.


*

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

My Favorite City Stoop In All The World

.


Philadelphia has a temporary art project going on now called Monument Lab. Artists were given a free hand to reimagine and comment on the concept of monuments. One of the most pleasing of which was the replacement of several park benches with actual city stoops, salvaged from demolished houses throughout the city. People stop to sit on them, hang out, flirt, do all the usual things people do on stoops in the city.

Up above is my favorite stoop in all Philadelphia, the one to 280 S. 23rd Street. That's where Marianne Porter lived long ago when we were both in our twenties and working at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Laboratories. My apartment was only two doors down. We were friends then, but there was not the least hint of romance in the air.

Then, one bright Saturday morning, I was taking a duffle of dirty clothes to the laundromat and saw Marianne sitting with her father on the stoop, eating ice cream cones. I stopped to say hello, we had a brief, innocent chat, and I went on my way. Not one of us had the slightest inkling that the world had just changed, changed utterly.

Roughly a year later, we stood in front of an altar and, in front of God and our families and friends, pledged our lives to each other.

That was thirty-seven years ago today, and we are still married. Happy anniversary, Sweetie. And many, many more to come.


You can read about Monument Lab here.


*

Monday, October 30, 2017

Brown Autumn

.



On Monday, I put up a Halloween story here. I was going to write it on fallen leaves, but this year the weather was dry and the frost was late, so we had a Brown Autumn. There weren't the variety of bright leaves such a story needs. Consequently,  I made do with a single illustration and the story in text.

Halloween has come and gone and so I've taken down the story.

Next year, if the leaves turn early and bright enough, I'll write the story out the way I originally intended, one word per leaf, and post it again.

Until then, stay warm and keep reading.


Above: A leaf. Beautiful, isn't it? Last year at this time,  a leaf from that same tree was blazing scarlet.



Friday, October 27, 2017

This Week in Glitterati History

.


I attended two local literary events here in Philadelphia this week. Not bad, eh? The first was the premier of the SFWA-sponsored reading series Galactic Philadelphia, held Tuesday in the fireplace room of the Irish Pub.

Reading were Gardner Dozois and Lara Elena Donnelly. A pretty high-powered crowd of people showed up, including Lawrence Schoen, Gregory Frost, Samuel R. Delany, and Sally Grotta. Plus, of course, the proverbial others.


Pictured above are (l-r): Marianne Porter, Gardner Dozois, Susan McAninley and Frank Crean. Sitting about, talking, before the event began.

Both readings were very well received indeed. The crowd was warm and friendly and the atmosphere was notably gemutlich. Bill West took a terrific shot of the crowd smiling in appreciation of Gardner's reading which Delany posted on Facebook. I don't snipe people's FB photos. But if you use Facebook, you can find it there.



Pictured above: Lara Elena Donnelly. The photo, I hope, hints at her quite excellent stage presence.

So the evening was a complete success.




Equally good, as far as I'm concerned, was Henry Wessells' lecture on Mary Shelly and Frankenstein at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.  The Rosenbach has a fabled collection of rare books and manuscripts, and is currently celebrating the centenary of the writing of both Frankenstein and Dracula with a small but stunning display of related materials. I don't know about you, but having the opportunity to read from some of the original manuscript pages of Frankenstein: or the New Prometheus, and see the changes and corrections that Mary Shelly made as she was writing it, fto follow the workings of that brilliant mind, illed me with wonder.

I won't give you the Cliff Notes version of Henry's lecture. (Henry is a bookman and works for James Cummins, Bookseller; he once handed me a Shakespeare Second Folia; he really does know his stuff.) Other than to say that he holds to the belief that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel and that he took the presence of two doubters in the audience (me and Chip Delany, though for different reasons) with grace and good humor. And that it was very well received by the audience. And that he provided those present with a great literary trivia question:What were the first words spoken by the Creature in the novel?

That's Henry up above.

The lecture was part of a series of events scheduled to support the exhibit, arranged by Edward G. Pettit, the Manager of Public Programs for the Rosenbach. Best known locally as "the Philly Poe Guy." The man knows pretty much everything about Gothic literature.

So the evening was a success. How big a success? When we got home, Marianne and I went onto the Rosenbach website and bought memberships.


And I know you're wondering, so....

The first words the Creature says in the novel are, "Forgive this intrusion."


Above, top:Michael Swanwick, Henry Wessells, Samuel R. Delany, and Edward G. Pettit, being literary in Philadelphia.

*

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Why Your First Novel EVEN MORE Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy

.


It needs to be said regularly: Don't start your career with a trilogy. I first published the essay below in 2010, but everything in it still applies.

Plus, I've added three more reasons why this is such a bad idea. Simply because over the years, people who made this mistake shared yet more regrets with me.

Read, learn, and send the link for this to friends who are gonnabe writers. The poverty and grief this prevents could be your own.


Why Your First Novel Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy

Three reasons, basically.  One is artistic, the second psychological, and the third pragmatic.

The artistic reason is that at the beginning of your career, you're learning faster and improving more swiftly than you ever will again.  That, and the fact that the mere act of publishing a book makes you a better writer, means that the prose styles of your first and second volumes will probably be considerably different.  Most readers won't pick up on this.  But the best ones will.  And your very best reader is yourself.  It's going to bug you to your dying day.

The psychological reason is that nine chances out of ten, no matter how much you love your first novel when it's fresh out of the oven, several years down the line you're going to end up disliking it.  It may not deserve your dislike.  But this is an observable phenomenon.  Writers wind up being embarrassed by their first.  And if your first is volume one of a trilogy, that's three books you're going to end up unhappy about.

The first two reasons are trivial, really.  But the pragmatic one is desperately important.  Here it is:

The timing of publishing is such that the "numbers" for your first book -- the sales figures, basically, the book's profitability -- won't be available by the time you turn in the second volume.  Since your editor liked the first book, the second one is a pretty sure sale.  But by the time you've finished writing the third volume, however, your publishing house will know the numbers.  And if the numbers aren't good, the book will not be bought.

Which means that book will not be sellable.  No other publisher will want to buy volume three of a trilogy whose first two volumes are owned by another house.  You'll have to wait until your first two books are out of print, revert the rights, and try to sell the trilogy anew.  But that will take years, and your dream-child will at that point be damaged goods.  Unless you've subsequently become extremely popular, it will probably still be unsellable.

Imagine how it must feel to have two published novels under your belt and then find you can't sell your third.  It must feel exactly like being fired for incompetence.  It is going to discourage the hell out of you.



But wait! There's more! 

Let's imagine that your first two books luck out and your editor wants the third. That means you're stuck with that editor. If you like the editor, that's good news. But if you and your editor can't agree on what your books should be... If you fight like cats and dogs... If you think he or she is crazy or vindictive or just doesn't know the job... Then you've got years of misery in front of you.



Nor does it end there. Let's imagine that you signed a three-volume contract on the strength of your first book. It makes perfect sense for the editor to do that. It locks you in at as low an advance as you're ever likely to get in your career for books Two and Three. If the first two don't sell, the editor can cut losses, fork over the advance, and wash his or her hands of you. Plus, if your agent wasn't paying attention, the contracts will have a "basket accounting" clause.


What, you ask, is this? It's a very simple way of not paying royalties for as long as possible. Let's say you get an advance of seven thousand dollars per book, half payable upon delivery of the book and half upon publication (a publishing term meaning anywhere between six to eighteen months after publication). And let's say your book earns out (sells enough copies to pay for your advance). In fact, it earns ten thousand dollars. That means they owe you three grand, right?

Not with basket accounting. With this clause, you don't get a penny in royalties until all three books have earned out. So your second book brings in another ten thousand? That's six thousand dollars they don't have to fork over until well after your third book is published.

By which time, you're likely to be feeling a little annoyed at your agent for letting you sign the contract in the first place. Which is the sixth reason why starting your career with a trilogy is a bad idea.

A writer's relationship with his or her agent is extremely important. Much the same as I was lucky in love, I was lucky in agents. But I've known many people who couldn't get along with their agents at all. Maybe they wanted to write Regency romances and the agent wanted them to writer SF thrillers. Maybe the agent had no interest in the sort of thing they wrote and went about selling it with all the enthusiasm of a vegan peddling calf's liver. The reason doesn't matter. Because, just as you're stuck with your editor, you're stuck with your agent. A new agent isn't going to want to pick you up mid-trilogy. Your current agent isn't going to let go control of a book they went through a lot of trouble to sell. So there you are.

Fighting with your editor, bickering with your agent, and watching your books rack up royalties that you won't get to touch for years.


And remember. . .

If you simply must write a trilogy, then go on ahead with a clean conscience.  All the best books are books that the the author had no choice but to write.  And all writing advice is like pantyhose -- anybody who tells you that "one size fits all" is lying.

But if any or all of the evils detailed above happen to your career, don't say that nobody warned you.


Above: A bottle of wine from Some Young Punks Winery. Just to cut the mood of doom and gloom.

*

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Winooski, My Town

.



I was doing some preliminary research on a novel I might (or might not) write three or four books from now when I ran across Winooski, My Town, a paean to Winooski, Vermont, by A2VT That's where I grew up. It amazes me how many of the shots bring back memories.

Also, these guys are really good, aren't they?


And while we're on the subject...

Did you know that Winooski was once the front-runner to become the world's first domed city? You can read the entire remarkable story here.


*

Friday, October 20, 2017

My Vacation Diary

.


Marianne and I do a lot of traveling and we travel actively. We travel to discover, to learn, to stand frozen with awe. We wander down dirt roads just to see where they lead to. But once a year we rent a beach house, down the Shore and do nothing at all.

Except for a Halloween story and half a dozen stories openings composed in the half-state between sleeping and waking, which I jotted down because it would be waste not to, and notes for a speech I have to make, I didn't even write.

Which doesn't mean we were completely sedentary. We walked along the beach, looking for mermaid's toenails. We strolled through nature preserves. We went to a bar on a schooner docked at the Lobster House and drank martinis.We assembled a jigsaw puzzle. We bought flowers to brighten up the rental.

I did keep a diary, though. That's it up above.


And don't forget...

Tje Orionids are tonight. Always worth seeing.


*

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Outposts!

.



They're hard to spot, difficult to find. But if you're patient and tenacious -- and if you're looking in the right place -- they're there to be found.

Up above: Amid the litter of the forest floor, there's a pebble topped by an acorn cap. Coincidence, you say?  What's that pebble doing atop the leaves? Harrumph. Had it just been thrown there by an energetic foot on a nearby gravel path (but there was no gravel path nearby), what were the odds of an acorn cap, separated from its nut by the force of its fall, landing exactly there? Is that reasonable to expect?

No.

What you see is a boundary marker set out by the Very Wee Folk at the edge of their territory.

Should you chance upon one, your impulse will surely be to shake off the cap and toss the bit of gravel far. Or maybe you'll kick them both as far as ever you can.

Bad mistake.

The Very Wee Folk are extremely territorial. Feuds have begun over a matter of an inch. Wars have been fought over patches of ground you could stride over in a minute. Generations have bled and died for this stretch of land beneath your notice.

So when you kick over their boundary marker, you're setting the Very wee Folk up to die in great number.

But they're not going to play your sick little game. Kick the thing over and come morning, you're going to be hearing from their lawyer.


And am I, you ask, still on vacation...?

If I weren't on vacation, I'd answer that question.


Above: For some reason, I was feeling whimsical.


*


Monday, October 16, 2017

Summer and Sex in Seventies Philadelphia

.



When I first came to Philly in the early Seventies, the city shut down in summer. Air conditioning was rare. You'd go to a movie theater and watch a bad movie just for the temporary respite. Almost all the restaurants closed. During the dog days of August, you'd lie naked on top of the sweaty sheets of your bed, panting like a dog.

Not in a sexy way.

I remember, one Sunday morning in August, walking up the dotted line in the center of Chestnut Street, arms out as if it were a tightrope. There wasn't a car to be seen, from river to river.

 All big cities have sexual accommodations peculiar to them. In Philadelphia, the custom was for affluent businessmen to rent a summer house "down the Shore," for the family. The wife and kids would stay there all summer. The businessman would spend weekends with them and during the week have an affair with his secretary.

When I first came to Philly, it was the custom for wealthy families on the East Coast to park their gay scions here, where their activities wouldn't cause scandal in their social circles. So there was a large and vibrant community of young men sowing their wild oats before being called back, when older and more discreet, to take up the reins of their family businesses. When I was out, late at night, I always walked home on Spruce Street, which was the spine of what later became known as the Gayborhood, because it was always filled with respectable young men who'd have come to my aid if somebody tried to mug me.

There was also an arrangement, the name for which I've forgotten, wherein wealthy older men sponsored respectable-and-presentable young women. "Mistress" overstates the emotional component of the relationship and "escort" goes too far in the other direction. Let's say "companion." Sex was involved, but the main purpose was for the man to have a young and presentable companion on social occasions. I had a friend who companioned herself through art school. She had a regular salary and was allowed to have a boyfriend (in my friend's case, many boyfriends, none of them commercial arrangements), but when her sponsor called, she had to drop everything, glam up, and hurry to his side. The rich have similar arrangements elsewhere, but I've never lived anywhere where it was openly expressed as here.

So that's my city back then. What sexual arrangements are peculiar to your city right now?


And speaking of summer...

I spent the summer working hard on The Iron Dragon's Mother. So I'm only now spending my summer vacation in a beach house down the Shore.

Secretaries most explicitly  not involved.


Above: There's another thing that's changed. Back then, people joked about how bad weather prediction was. "They predicted no rain, so you'd better bring an umbrella. Har har har." But now, with weather satellites, radar, and the like, AccuWeather delivers predictions that are, well... accurate.


*

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I've Been Humbled Bundled!

.



"I know what Humble Bundle is," my son said. "But I'm surprised you know."

Sean, it turns out, is a big Humble Bundle fan. He has, apparently, bought tons of ebooks from them. He never mentioned this fact to me, or even that he reads ebooks because, well, you know... Dads.

At any rate, yes. Vacuum Flowers, my big space novel, chock-full of ideas and near-naked people, is part of a Humble Bundle offer. And it's on the first tier, which means that you can get it and four other excellent books for only a dollar. If that's how little you want to spend.

Here's what it says on the press release:

Humble Bundle and Open Road Media have teamed up to provide 20+ space adventure ebooks from award-winning authors. Choose what you want to pay, and you’ll also be supporting SFWA, which helps support and advocate for some of our favorite SciFi/Fantasy authors.    

So you get lots and lots of space adventure, contribute to a worthy cause, and get to name your own price. If that's not your cup of tea, you just don't like reading space adventure ebooks. De gustibus non est disputandum.

The offer, which starts today and ends on the 18th,  can be found here.


And let me put in a plug for...

There are a lot of Big Names in this bundle. But let me suggest you put in enough money to get Starrigger by John DeChancie. The basic premise sounds almost comic... truck drivers to the stars! But he pulled it off. There's a lot of good old-fashioned science-fictional invention and adventure in this book. Here, from Wikipedia, is the basic premise:

Jake McGraw drives a futuristic cargo truck on the Skyway. The Skyway itself is a mysterious road, built by an unknown race of aliens, which runs across various planets from one portal to another. Driving through a portal (a "tollbooth") instantaneously transports you onto a different planet, many light years away. Humans found the Skyway on Pluto and began expanding along it, encountering various alien races along the way. However no one has a map, or knows where the Skyway begins or ends, and because each portal is one-way, only explored sections with a known return path (discovered by trial and error) are considered safe to travel.    


And now you know if that's your sort of thing. Starrigger is the first volume of a trilogy. But if you're like me, you'll consider the fact that there are two more books good news. DeChancie is a fine writer and I'm sorry he's not better known.


*

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Live! Tonight! Me! In Brooklyn!

.


Gardner Dozois and I will be reading tonight at the New York Review of Science Readings series in Brooklyn. This will be at The Brooklyn Commons Cafe at 388 Atlantic Avenue. The doors open at 6:30, the riotous fun begins a 7:00, and the suggested donation is $7. This means that if you're a genuinely impoverished bohemian, you can just slink in and nobody will think the less of you.

So why go? Chiefly, to hear Gardner. He's best known for his two decades as editor of Asimov's Science Fiction and his 34 years as editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction. But those who know him best know that he's an even better writer than he is an editor. He quit writing when he took the Asimov's gig, but in recent months he's returned to the profession -- so this is your chance to discover if he's still got the chops.

No pressure, Gardner.

I'll be there, too, reading from my forthcoming novel, The Iron Dragon's Mother. This book completes the trilogy I began a quarter-century ago. Find out if it was time well spent.

No pressure, Michael.

The NYRSF readings are always fun. There's always a crowd of friendly, intelligent people and they always seem to be enjoying themselves. So what the heck. Why not?


Above: Omar Rayyan made that wonderful image from pix he found on the Web. He'd never seen either Gardner or me in his life. I still marvel at that.

*

Friday, September 29, 2017

A Dream from My Son's Childhood

.



I was going through a mound of papers in my office, finding old magazines, half-written stories, maps of foreign cities and the like when I came across a sheet of paper typed out when my son Sean was only four years old.

Here's what it said:

"Trains"

It was bedtime and I was going to read Sean another chapter of Stuart Little. But we got sidetracked and he told me about his dream instead. He was hte engineer on a "strange train" and it went into Dinosaur Land. The dinosaurs were very fierce but there were walls to either side of the track. The dinosaurs couldn't get to him because he'd built gates. THe gates kept the dinosaurs out. He painted hte train in bright colors. It was very bright. It was pink mostly. Was there green? No. Yellow? Yes. Blue? No. He didn't want to paint the bathroom because it was wet. He met an Apatosaurus. What did it say? Apatosauruses can't talk. It wanted to get in. It wanted to know where the gates were, but Sean didn't tell. The train was a half-circle on the bottom and painted very bright inside, and a half circle on hte top. The people who gave him the parts to build the train wanted him to paint it very bright. What were the people who gave him the parts like? "They were Dotty and Louise and Alice and Grandmother and Grandfather."

7/87

That was over thirty years ago -- or, in Dad time, three or four months.


And the moral of this story is...

Tempus fugit. Parents should write down incidents like this while they can.


Above: Sean Swanwick. I think the photo was by Gardner Dozois or Susan Casper. It was taken during a New Year's Eve party in their then apartment in Society Hill.


*

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Few More Words of "Starlight"

.



The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has just posted a brief interview with me about my story "Starlight Express," which is in their current issue. The beautiful cover by Maurizio Manzieri  summarizes the spirit of the story.

On those rare occasions when I teach, the students are always anxious to learn how to describe a character's appearance. Since I spent more time describing Flaminio (the protagonist) and Szett (the woman he meets under strange circumstances, I thought I'd share with you the entirety of those descriptions:

Where Flaminio had the ruddy complexion and coarse face of one of Martian terraformer ancestry, the woman had aristocratic features, the brown eyes and high cheekbones and wide nose of antique African blood. 

As I said, that's as much description as I ever give fictional characters -- because nothing more is needed. Create a convincing character and the reader will imagine an appropriate appearance for someone behaving in that manner. It's as simple as that.

You can read the interview here.


And the big news is...

There is a brand new story by Samuel R. Delany in the very same issue of F&SF. It's the first work of science fiction that he's written in decades, so "The Hermit of Houston" is a very big deal indeed. As could be expected, it's strange, challenging, and inventive. I like it enormously.


*

Friday, September 22, 2017

Putting Your Best Foot Forward


.




Here's a story with the names rubbed off, lest I unintentionally give offense. Back in the Eighties, when I was what Gardner Dozois would persist in calling "a hot new writer," for a full decade, a small press published s series of small, cheap SF paperbacks, each containing half a dozen or so stories by a writer whom I considered one of the best of my generation. I eagerly bought them all... and was invariably disappointed. Because they'd all saved their best work for an eventual hardcover collection.

Years later, I was talking to Jim Turner, the extremely valuable editor of Arkham House and later Golden Gryphon Press, about these collections, and he said, "There was no reason not to use their best. I wasn't in direct competition with those books."

I remembered this later, when Chris Logan Edwards suggested I put together a slim collection of stories for his Tigereyes Press. So I went through my uncollected works and chose the very best and because they all were written in recent years, they had an underlying unity that worked well. Chris created a beautiful book with a wonderful cover by artist Lee Moyer

A Geography of Unknown Lands placed on the ballot for the World Fantasy Award for best collection.

The moral here, I think, is obvious.


And the reason for the picture above is...

So off I went, out into the countryside, on what I would have called a "mental health day," back when I pulled down a salary.

The picture above is of a cormorant drying its wings in the sun. Cormorants work hard. Usually, I do too. But not every day.


Above: Photograph by M. C. Porter. Marianne is a much better photographer than I'll ever be.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gone Birding

.
Li Bai long ago wrote a poem, in Chinese of course, that can be translated thusly:

Because water returns, though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it in wine,
Because the world can in no way conform to our desires,
Today,I will let down my hair
And go fishing.

Wise words from everybody's favorite drunken savant. So today I'm going birding. If you behave yourselves while I'm away, maybe I'll share a photograph or two.

*

Thursday, September 14, 2017

China in Helsinki -- Part 2

.


Chinese science fiction writers, editors, and other professionals were all over Worldcon 75. I had a number of conversations with old friends and new throughout the convention. Many of which occurred during the Storycom party on Saturday night.

I met and talked with any number of writers there, including Gu Shu, whose story "Chimera," appeared last year in Clarkesworld and Bao Shu,  another Clarkesworld alumnus, whose story "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" was published last year in F&SF and reprinted in Paula Guran's The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas and Allan Kanter's The Year's Top Short Science Fiction Novels audio book. I also had the opportunity to connect with author Ruhan Zhao and to meet Feng Zhang, introduced to me as "the Chinese John Clute." Among, as they say, many others.

The conversations were good. I learned a lot about the rapidly evolving state of science fiction in China. My friend  Haihong Zhao and I discussed Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem  trilogy at some length -- books which we both admire greatly. I learned much that should prove useful to know.

And if I could share with you only one thing I learned about the Chinese SF community, what would it be? Well...

"You guys are all so supportive of each other!" an actress I know once remarked about the science fiction community in the US. "Actors aren't like that at all."

The Chinese science fiction community is like that too, and possibly more so, because contemporary science fiction is relatively new and needs all the support it can get. I had heard beforewhat a close-knit community it is. But now I could see it in action: in the way they treated each other, in how the bigger-name writers were careful to introduce the newer ones, and how everybody was careful not to hog too much of any conversation. These are good people and they're working to create an important body of literature. I couldn't help thinking the world of them.


Above: Ted Chiang, me, and Ruhan Zhao.  In the background is Bao Shu. Photograph by Haihong Zhao. Did I mention what a terrific writer Haihong is?

*


Monday, September 11, 2017

China in Helsinki -- Part 1

.


One of the most substantive conversations I had at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki was with award-winning author, translator, and editor Francesco Verso. He is also the founder and editor in chief of Future Fiction, an Italian imprint dedicated to publishing the best SF authors from around the world. We were talking about diversity, in part because he’s publishing an anthology of stories by Chinese SF authors in both Chinese and Italian. So, obviously, he’s in favor of diversity. “But not to be ‘politically correct,’” he said. “That’s pointless.”

I wasn’t taking notes and I’m wary of unintentionally misquoting Verso, so here’s something very similar to what I heard, which he said in an interview on The Earthian Hivemind: “…as a reader, I was tired of going to Italian bookstores and finding always (or mostly) the same kind of story, written by a middle-class, English-speaking, white-man (presumably Christian, Heterosexual and living in the US or the UK). I was missing a huge part of the representativeness of the ‘real’ world, some kind of ‘literary biodiversity’ which in other genres – as paradoxically as it might seem – is not so extreme.”

Exactly! Literary diversity is to be valued not for abstract reasons but because it enriches us. It gives us new insights, new perspectives, and most importantly new ideas. Which is, after all, what this field is all about.

This is why it was so exciting to see a large and active Chinese presence at the Worldcon. There were at least four distinct groups of which I was aware: 

There was Science Fiction World, the publisher of China’s oldest (and the world’s most-read) science fiction magazine (also called Science Fiction World), as well as a great number of SF books, both original and in translation. In addition to their core activities, they were manning a booth in the trade hall (dealers’ room) to promote the Fourth China International SF Conference, which will be held in Chengdu this November.

Then there was Douban Read, the publishing arm of a social networking service. At least two of their people were meeting with science fiction writers and editors in order to expand their presence in the SF market.

The Future Affairs Administration is or began as, if I got this right, a consortium of Beijing-area fans, dedicated to the promotion and development of Chinese science fiction. In a South China Morning Post interview with the Future Affairs Administration's founder Ji Shaoting, the paper characterized their mission as "a start-up in Beijing that wants to ‘administer the future’ by being an incubator for sci-fi talent and integrating resources through hosting seminars and connecting writers with scientists." They are currently getting into publishing in a big way.

Finally, but certainly not least, there was Storycom, which I was told exists chiefly to connect Chinese science fiction writers to the Chinese movie industry. But they are engaged in other activities as well, most notably the Shimmer Program. A partnership between the Shimmer Program and Clarkesworld has been bringing a Chinese science fiction story a month to Anglophone readers for twenty or more months. We have good reason to be grateful to them.

So there was a great deal going on. Most of which, of course, went right over my head. My connection with China is very slim. I've had some stories and novels published there, and I have Chinese friends, but to be honest, I'm a spear-carrier in this epic.

But I'll say a few words more about on this topic in Wednesday's blog.


You can read The Earthian Hivemind’s interview with Franceso Verso here.

You can read the interview with Ji Shaoting here.

And of course, you can always find the indispensable Clarkesworld here.


Above: That's me with my friend Haihong Zhao, an extremely good writer and winner of several Chinese Galaxy Awards.


*