Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Of Trolls and Moon Nazis


I was going to post something serious and sensitive and literary today.  I didn't plan on blogging about a movie I haven't yet seen.  And I certainly didn't intend to blog about a movie about Nazis on the Moon.

But then I ran across the above clip of the first four minutes of Iron Sky.   I'd seen the trailer (click here) and was hoping that it would be the kind of guilty pleasure you don't tell your dissertation advisor about.  Now, I'm convinced that it is.

I've just put in an order at Netflix.

What convinced me to blog about the movie, though, was a credit visible at the very end:  Based on Story by Johanna Sinisalo

Sinisalo is a Finnish writer who won the Finlandia Prize for literature in 2000 for her first novel, Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi.  This was published in England as Not Before Sunset and in America as Troll: A Love Story, received glowing reviews, and never got the attention it deserved.

The novel begins when a young gay man chances upon a group of hooligans torturing an animal --a dog, he thinks -- and chases them away.  He finds himself the guardian of an injured troll.  One which, as it heals, exudes pheromones that can make pretty much anyone sexually irresistible.  There ensues a graceful (and slim!) novel of eros and alienation. 

As a work of mainstream literature, Troll is pretty much everything you want from a novel.  As a science fiction novel . . . ditto.  Sinisalo creates a convincing parallel evolution for her trolls, documented in excerpts from created texts and (I think) real ones as well.  All of which is, by evidence of a top-notch translation, written in a lovely and lucid prose style.  I'd recommend this book for pretty much anybody.

And, as it turns out, she can write trash as well!  Good trash.  That's a talent every bit as rare as being able to write good serious literature.

 I'll let you know how the movie turns out.  Pretty awesome, I'm betting.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Dragonstairs Press Stirs and . . . Awakens?


Today's post is a little late because . . .  Well, to explain, I have to go back a bit.

Those who pay attention to these things know that my wife, Marianne Porter, is the self-styled "nano-publisher" behind Dragonstairs Press, which has done a number of very handsome limited edition chapbooks of my work.

The chapbooks aren't all, however.  One project that's been simmering away for over a year is Sam the Asteroid, a children's book based on a story I told Sean when he was very, very young. 

This is not your usual children's book.  In fact, Marianne is toying with using the blurb I wrote for it:  Black Humor for Small Children!  

Anyway, the art (by Adam Cusack) has been assembled, the publishing program bought, sworn at, and mastered, and the tech team -- that would be Sean -- has been recruited.  So this morning Marianne said to me, "Today we [insert publishing babble here] -- so if you want to make any changes to the text, you'd better do it now."

So that's what I've been doing all day.  Reworking and revising the text for Sam the Asteroid.  I'll keep you posted on when it comes available.  Or, you can watch the Dragonstairs website here.  Pre-publication orders are not currently being accepted.

There's also another Dragonstairs project in the offing -- and it's a strange and wonderful one too.  I'll keep you posted on that one as well.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Revisitng the Re-Barnes


Yesterday, I finally visited the Barnes Foundation in its new home on the Parkway, and I am here to report that it's a very strange experience indeed to see rooms you've visited many times before whisked away and recreated in an entirely different building.

The new rooms have exactly the same proportions as the old ones, and the art is hung in them in exactly the same positions as the old ones.  In most ways this is good.  Albert C. Barnes, the man who assembled this astonishing collection at a time when the art establishment of Philadelphia wouldn't touch a Cezanne with a ten-foot pole, had an extremely good eye and strong theories about art.  He created the original foundation as a teaching museum, and the paintings are placed so that various aspects of them can be compared and contrasted. 

In two ways, this is not so good.  First, because the rooms are relatively small, only a limited number of tickets are sold in any given time period, and since they almost always sell out, the rooms are always crowded.  Also, because the rest of the walls were full, a few of the paintings are hung high over the doorways, where they're almost impossible to see.  One Rousseau in particular makes me want to slap a ladder against the doorway and clamber up to see exactly what it's a painting of.

This came about because some years back the Barnes Foundation went bankrupt (this is a long story, involving race, rich people, parking, and above all, lawsuits -- lots and lots of lawsuits) and the only way that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would agree to fork over tens of millions of dollars to keep it afloat was in exchange for moving the collection to a new museum in Philadelphia.  

Still, it's a wonderful collection, wherever one sees it. The Modigliani Redheaded Girl in an Evening Dress is as refreshing as a cold lemonade on a hot day.  The Van Gogh of cottages under a pink sky is just plain amazing.  The Courbet of a young woman peeling off her stockings preparatory to sex is quite simply pornographic -- and I mean that approvingly.  The Miros are a joy to see.  Seeing them again was like visiting old friends.

The exterior of the building is a little annoying when you're wandering about it on a cold winter day, looking for the entrance with very clues to help you find it.  But the interior is comfortable and pleasantly workable.  Lots of space has been added for people to rest in after all that staring at the art.

Because you have to order the tickets beforehand, the museum-goers are the most reverent batch you've ever seen in your life.  I've been in cathedrals that drew less solemn crowds.

Above:  I honestly couldn't tell you if this is the room from the old Barnes or the new one.  They're virtually identical.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Okay, I Admit It, I Have Nothing to Say Today....


Okay, I admit it.  I have nothing to say today.

So here's a photo of Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees rejecting your speciesist objectification of feline beauty.

I'm sorry to have to be the one to convey her opinion of you to you.

Incidentally, this is as closed as I've ever seen Miss Hope's eyes.  She sleeps with them open.


Monday, January 21, 2013

The Truth About Science Fiction Writers


Years ago, at a convention, I was spinning out one of my favorite fantasies about how pleasant it would be if there were such a thing as a mainstream literary conventions:  Big-name guests of honor, panels on the New Realistic, and so on.  Gordon Van Gelder listened patiently, and then said, "Nobody could afford it."

"Eh?" I said.

"Mainstream writers charge for public appearances.  It's a major part of how they make a living."

There then ensued a multi-person conversation on the economics of mainstream author appearances which I'll spare you because I remember none of the specifics, but which would have made a good panel, had it been premeditated.

Science fiction conventions are an accident of history.  Hugo Gernsback put letters columns in his magazines to boost circulation, and included the addresses in them.  Scientifiction enthusiasts started writing letters to each other, and thus fandom was born.  Fans wanted to get together, and so they created conventions.  Many of these fans were also writers and so editors like John W. Campbell were available for the conventions.  Science fiction writers got no respect from the literary world, so they were pleased to show up and be lionized.  Add time, shake, and you have what we have today.

Similarly, due to this accident of history, science fiction writers have a long history of helping other writers learn how to write and how to sell.  This is not how it works in the larger literary world, alas.  As a group, genre writers are nicer to each other than mainstream writers are.

This all comes to mind because at the Pen & Pencil club the other day, Gardner Dozois said, "Do you know how much money George R. R. Martin made last year?  I wouldn't mention it, except that I saw it in a newspaper, so it's a matter of public record."  Then he mentioned a number that was, let's say, remarkably large.

We were sitting at a table of writers and journalists and one nano-publisher, and after we'd discussed this matter for a bit, Tom Purdom remarked, "Do you see how remarkable this is?  We have a group of writers discussing the financial good fortune of a friend -- and nobody's said a bad word about him!"

Which made us all feel pretty good about the cohort we belong to.  Somebody raised a glass and proposed a toast:  "To George R. R. Martin!"

"To George R. R. Martin!" everybody cried, and drank to his health and continued prosperity.

It was a good moment, and I for one was grateful to George for it.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Bright Lights, City Mountains


I am currently working on a chapter of Hunting the Phoenix, my new Darger & Surplus novel, set in Guilin. 

Guilin is one of the most beautiful places I've never been to.  I'd arranged to go there (among other places) earlier this year, but a badly-timed cold (the airport in Beijing has thermometer gates to catch anyone running a fever so they can be placed in quarantine) put the kibosh to that plan.

Nevertheless, Marianne went and afterward told me about it.  I've been dreaming about it ever since.

Guilin is a city of roughly one million people, punctuated by karst mountains.  Wooded mountains, right in the middle of the city!  Even better, these are those beautiful mountains that Chinese artists have been painting since forever -- the ones that look too good to be true.  It turns out that in the morning when the mists gather about their feet, they're even lovelier than you refused to believe they could be.

All of the mountains, and there are many of them, are riddled with caves, both natural and man-made.  They're all hollow!

On the waterfront, at night, all the buildings are lit up with colored LEDs.

Oh, man.  I have got to return to China.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013



My Monday post about my nonfiction elicited an email from my friend and occasional publisher, Henry Wessels, with the heading of "Ahem."  He wished it pointed out that What Can Be Saved From The Wreckage?, my survey of James Branch Cabell's life and works, can still be bought from the publisher at its original (and quite reasonable) price.

Point well taken.  For ordering info, click here.

Cabell's was a maddeningly hard to judge individual.  He married an older woman for her money and said so in his autobiographical writings.  Yet he not only refused to have his Down's Syndrome son institutionalized at a time when that was the expected thing, he included the boy in his social life.  He had a wicked sense of humor, which he frequently chose not to share with his readers.  He was a curmudgeon who could charm the pants off an interviewer, even in his curdled old age.  Every time you think you've got a handle on him, he does something to confound you.

Which is, I believe, as he intended.

As for my book . . . It's primary virtue, I believe, is for those who want to go voyaging in his fiction but do not know where in his approximately fifty books to begin.  I may well be wrong in my judgment of some of his books ( Neil Gaiman, for one, wishes I had been more bullish on a couple), but I am not wrong in my ranking.  Start with those I praise highest, leave those I liked least for least, and when you've decided your appetite has been sated, you can leave off with a clean conscience.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Tawny Petticoats

Pleasant news, if you happen to be me!  My Darger & Surplus story, "Tawny Petticoats" has been accepted for Gardner Dozois' and George RR. Martin's Rogues anthology.

Of the story itself, I shall say only that it takes place in New Orleans and that it involves zombies.  Not George Romero brain-eating zombies, I hasten to add.  Old School zombies.  Of its eponymous heroine, I shall only remark that she makes a great addition  to the team.

And her name?  It comes from Mother Goose.  Before you read it, though, you should be aware that at that time the rhyme was written, "lusty" meant healthy and hence physically attractive.  Nothing bad.

Here it is:

As I went by a dyer's door,
I met a lusty tawnymoor.
Tawny hands and tawny face,
Tawny petticoats,
Silver lace.

I isn't that lovely?  Isn't that Romantic?  Can't you just see the young lady blush when the poem's narrator pays her his compliments?


Nonfiction and Me


I spent the day roaming about New Jersey in search of a crested caracara (pictured above) that had wandered far, far from its usual territory -- Texas and Mexico, mostly, but there are some as close as southern Florida.  Alas, Marianne and I did not see it, though we did talk to a man who had, only a few minutes before.

That, anyway, is why this blog post is almost (but not quite) late.  But it's still today, so I'll share with a letter I received over the weekend.  The writer's name has been removed because there wasn't the time to ask his permission to use it:

I'm a long time fan. I actually briefly met you at the SFWA event in NY earlier in the fall. I had a quick question. Are there any plans afoot to reprint "Hope-in-the-Mist" and "What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?" Maybe even in one volume? If not, I think your non-fiction is due for a collection. I've had my eyes peeled for those for a while and really am desperate to read them. Anyway, thanks for what you do.  

The short answer is that while there's no collection of my non-fiction in the works, I have plans on the back burner to publish an e-book of Hope-in-the-Mist with a couple of short related non-fiction pieces, just to make it available to scholars and other interested individuals.  Since there's so little material available on Hope Mirrlees, anybody who wants to write about her pretty much has to read my book, which is now perilously close to being unobtainable.  So I feel an obligation to do something about.

So why haven't I done that already?  Well...

Years ago, while the project was cooking, I told critic John Clute that I was writing a book on Hope Mirrlees.   He looked alarmed and said, "You do realize that there's no money in it?"

"I do, and I'm researching it in my spare time, as a hobby."

"Good, good, good!" John said, visibly relieved.  Obviously the man had some experience with how naive commercial writers could be about academic publishing.

Which is why I haven't done more with my non-fiction.  Because it's a hobby.  Most of my time goes to my fiction, which pays me pretty well.  A lot of my free time goes to writing non-fiction, which because I only write about things I feel passionately about is satisfying to the soul.  And the rest...

Well, much as I'd like to have a collection or three of my non-fiction, I don't currently have the time to go looking for a publisher.  Maybe after I've got the next two novels finished things will open up more.

And that's my unsatisfying answer.  I apologize for it not being more like what you and I would prefer.  I write for the love of it and the work which I write for love which brings in money has people who will do all the grunt work of selling it and publishing it.  That which brings in little money simply has to wait.

Someday, though.  When I can find the time.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Free Me!


Well, technically speaking, a free story by me.  In a free e-book anthology from  With a refreshingly honest title.  Every year, in his introduction to his Big Fat Best of the Year anthology, Gardner Dozois comments that, given the lack of any possible means of objectively defining "best" stories, the anthology really ought to be Stories That Gardner Dozois Thought Were Cool This Year.  Editors Gorinsky, Nielsen Hayden, and Hartwell, got around this ethical dilemma by calling their volume, Some of the Best From Tor.Com: 2012 Edition.  Implying, I believe, that they consider all the stories they publish to be top-notch.  Which is true.  They pay top rates and they get first look at a lot of cool short fiction.

Anyway, it's a cool anthology, it has my own"The Mongolian Wizard" in it, and it's absolutely free.  If you read books in e-form, there's no reason not to get it.

The announcement and links for downloads are here.  There's also a 2011 version, which has my own "The Dala Horse," in it (along with other good stuff), also available free.  When you download this year's collection, you should poke around and download last year's as well.

And I have advice for those who have just published their first story . . .

Updating my records for the above publication put me in mind of some advice I've been meaning to pass along.  Here's something that every writer should do upon publication of your first story, even though it's going to make you feel foolish:  Start a bibliography. 

This should be the very third thing you do (after breaking open the champagne and the hot sex which you may or may not regret the next day) after your story comes out.  Look up the proper formatting, write down all the info, and then save the sheet of paper and the e-file in places where you can easily find them.

As is only natural, that first story is going to going to look mighty small and lonely on that great big sheet of paper or screen.  You're going to be tempted to delete the file, trashcan the paper, and put the chore off until you've got enough publications to fill an entire page.

Don't do it!

By the time you've had enough stories published for your bibliography to look good, that information is going to be difficult to assemble, and you'll never be entirely sure you haven't missed an item or ten.  There'll be a reprint in Portugar, a posting on the Web, a pirated copy in a former Soviet Republic, something which doesn't get included.  Which I guarantee will bother you.

Also, it'll be a great incentive to keep you writing when you feel like goofing off.  One more story and the bibliography will look less silly . . .  Another two and my career will begin to look promising . . . Four more and it goes to a second page!

These are little things, admittedly.  But that's what a writer's life is made up of:  small gestures.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

One Rule To Judge Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them


So . . . You saw the movie version of The Hobbit and it was like the parson's egg -- parts of it were excellent.  But then the gang went on Mr. Troll's Wild Ride, and you thought:  Oh dear God!  Now you can't decide how to judge the movie.  Given its virtues, can you really, with a clean conscience, declare that it's a bad movie?

Unca Mike is here to help.

Long, long ago, I formulated a rule by which one can dismiss most bad cartoons without having to endure them all the way to the end.  If the assembled good guys suddenly find themselves all in a clump, flying through the air screaming . . . that means the cartoon sucks.  It's possible that three-year-olds think this is witty.  I wouldn't know because when Sean was that age, we told him that that there were no TV shows on Saturday mornings.  But for ages five and above, it's witless.

From Dennis the Menace and his friends flying through the air in a Radio Flyer screaming to Winnie the Pooh and his friends clinging to each other while flying through the air screaming (and surely there are Disney executives who will burn in Hell for that), it's an infallible rule of thumb:  anything containing that scene is a sucky cartoon.  Doubly so if they also abruptly fall screaming down a long slide that suddenly opens up beneath them.

By this infallible rule, what you saw was not a bad movie -- it was a sucky cartoon.

I'm glad I could clear that up for you.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Sound & Spirit & Tolkien Too


I found out too late to post it here but last Thursday, January 3rd, was J. R. R. Tolkien's birthday.  According to a young tradition invented by the Tolkien Society, on that day you should, at 9 p.m. local time, stand, raise a glass, and toast the man in the British fashion by saying, "The Professor."

It's a good tradition.  I took part in it for the first time last week and I expect to honor it every year henceforth.

And closely related . . .

The thing I remember most about Ellen Kushner's wonderful and now-extinct radio show Sound & Spirit (which she once characterized to me as "Joseph Campbell meets Ellen's record collection") is how the local PRI station kept changing when they aired it so that I was always frustratedly trying to find where they'd hidden it now.

The thing I remember second-most about it was the hot summer day when my then-teenage son Sean and I were cleaning out the garage.  He excused himself to go to the bathroom and a good ten or fifteen minutes later I chanced to glance at a handful of kibble I'd picked up and found myself staring at the grinning skull of an opossum.  After gently depositing the thing on the garage floor, I went in to see why it hadn't been Sean who'd picked it up and found him talking intently on the phone.  "Who are you talking to?" I asked him (politely, thank God!) and, covering the mouthpiece with his hand, he replied, "I'm being interviewed for public radio."

[That was for a show Ellen did on nostalgia, and Sean was being interviewed because he'd just named his generation.  Maybe I'll tell you that story someday.]

The third most memorable thing is that I ... What's the word?  Not "appeared."  I was heard on the show's Tolkien episode, talking about reading The Lord of the Rings to my son Sean when he was nine years old and discovering that we were experiencing two entirely different books.

That's the show up above.  There's a lot of good stuff in it.  Enjoy.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Looking Back on the Year 2012


I'm still on the road,  so . . . Some eye candy and some mind candy today.

First, from Slate, a selection of the best astronomical photos of the year.   Click here.

And, from Smithsonian Magazine, a summary of the coolest dinosaur discoveries of the year.  Click here.

Finally, Myscienceacademy has a list of 27 science fictions that became science fact last year.  Not all are as significant as the list's compiler thinks they are.  But a couple are game-changers.  And the Slow Singularity continues to pick up speed.  The world is going to be a very different place in ten years.  To read, click here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Madness of Gordon Van Gelder


I opened my post office box today and discovered  a royalty check, which seemed an auspicious way to start the year.

Not half so auspicious as the first mail day of the year 2000, however.  A few weeks earlier, I'd sent Gordon Van Gelder, the brilliant and occasionally snarky (deny it if you can, Gordon!) editor of F&SF, a short-short story titled "The Madness of Gordon Van Gelder."  It was not a submission to his magazine.  A series of incidents involving him, which I spelled out in the story, had occurred and on a whim I jotted down an admittedly witty tale about him discovering that he got a sexual kick out of buying bad fiction.

So I sent it to Gordon with a note saying, in essence, "Here's something pleasant for you -- a story which you neither have to buy nor reject.  Read and enjoy!"  Then I forgot about it entirely.

(Gordon disputes parts of this story, by the way, because he thinks it implies that I gamed him into buying the story and he's very watchful about being gamed.  But he's wrong in his suspicions.  I sent him the story knowing there was not a chance in Hell of him buying it.  No games involved.)

On January 2 or 3, 2000, whichever was the first mail day of the new Millennium, I went to the post office, opened my box, and  discovered a familiar-looking envelope, that which contains a check from F&SF.

I didn't sent Gordon a story, I thought in puzzlement, and opened the check.  Then I saw that he'd bought a story I'd never tried to sell him and had honestly forgotten existed.  Half because it was (to be honest) a good story and half because he has a Puckish sense of humor, Gordon had bought my short-short.

A surge of megalomania filled me. I OWN this century! I thought.

Which is my New Year's story.  May your new year be equally filled with madness and joy.

And because we all make resolutions this time of year . . .

I have resolved to limit my blogging to three days a week, in order to free up more time for serious writing.  I can't guarantee to keep to this resolve.  Things keep happening which I want to share.  But I'll be doing my best to keep to it.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  But I ought to be able to post on Friday anyway, fingers crossed.  Wish me luck.