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.