Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Midwinter Night's Cigar


Back when I smoked three packs a day, I thought that if only I could smoke one cigarette a day I'd get all the pleasure there was out of smoking.  When I finally managed to quit (using the go-to-Ireland-and-don't-bring-cigarettes method), I discovered that four cigars a year sufficed.

Not that I always smoke that many.  This year I had only two: one in March and one the other night.

Cigars being so rare in my life, each one is a special occasion.  I buy a very good one and when the time comes, go out into the back yard with a glass of scotch.  Then I sit alone, in the night, thinking about whatever I'm currently working on.  The Next Novel, in this case.  I slowly smoke the cigar, aided by an occasional sip of whisky.  I plot as far in advance as I can.  And I make notes.

That's my notebook up above with my pen clipped to the right-hand page.  I took a moment off from thinking and taking notes to photograph it lying in my lap, very much like a cat.  The lights are fortuitous, an artifact of the laser Christmas light system that Sean and I installed this year.

So my year has ended peacefully.  Many good things happened this year and I am grateful for them all.  I wish the same for you in the coming year.  Be happy, be well, be kind to one another.


Monday, December 29, 2014

A Candle From Space


My sister Barbie sent me the above issue of Galaxy because she ran across it in a house sale and thought I might like it.  She was right, of course.  It contained a Kurt Vonnegut story and one by Murray Leinster and Robert Sheckley's "The Seventh Victim," which was made into the movie The 10th Victim, in which Ursula Andress killed a man with her brassiere gun.

But the coolest aspect of the magazine was Willy Ley's essay.  Ley was one of the founders of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) before fleeing the Nazis and settling down in America, where he was an extremely influential popularizer of rocketry and space travel.

"The Birth of the Space Station" is chiefly about Hermann Oberth's speculations about space stations in his pioneering book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (Rocket to Interplanetary Space).    There is much to delight in here, but I won't retell Ley's essay.  Instead, I want only to share one quote from Oberth:

With their powerful instruments they would be able to see fine detail on Earth, and could communicate by means of mirrors reflecting sunlight.  This might be useful for communications with places on the ground which have no cable connections and which cannot be reached by electric waves.  Since they, provided the sky is clear, could see a candle at night and the reflection from a hand mirror by day...

Isn't that lovely?  Satellite communications by candle!  The book was written in 1921, remember, when radio was still in its infancy.  But what a wonderful combination of prescience and failure to extrapolate, of space stations and candlelight.

There is intellectual satisfaction in predictions that come true.  But sometimes there is emotional satisfaction in those that don't.

And speaking of Great Satan Amazon . . .

A short while ago, Amazon got into a dispute with the Hachette Book Group over whether the publisher should get to decide how much their books sell for or the retailer.  At the time, a significant number of self-published writers sided with Amazon because they believed that it was on their side.

It was not. Even more recently, Amazon began what the New York Times characterizes as an "all-you-can-eat" program, offering subscribers unlimited e-book reads for ten dollars a month.  A lot of indy writers who were doing pretty well there suddenly found their sales plummeting.  Some, who had quit their day jobs, found that what had been a career was now a hobby.

It would be easy to see this as a case of poetic justice.  But to sneer at the self-published writers who have been screwed over by a big corporation would be a mistake -- the same mistake that they themselves (out of innocence and ignorance) earlier made.  Writers should support other writers.  We are weak enough, God knows, compared to Amazon or Google or anybody else who thinks it would be a great idea if the business guys got all the profit and the artist guys had no choice but to provide their work for free.

We must all hang together, right?  You know how the rest of that goes.

You can read the NYTimes article here.


Friday, December 26, 2014



This being the day after Christmas, as is traditional in my house, I have gone birding.

See you on Monday!


I'm back.  Marianne and I went to Bombay Hook in Delaware.  It was a VERY strange birding day.  The sky was purest blue -- and almost perfectly birdless.  We saw raptors on the drive south and on the drive home -- but not a single one within the preserve.  There were no eagles to be seen, which was understandable because there's a single nest there and half the time its inhabitants are elsewhere.  But this may be the first time I went to Bombay Hook and didn't see a harrier.  And since we normally visit in mid-week, it was astonishing how much traffic there was.


Skipping over the drifts of snow geese, the tundra swans, shovelers, buffleheads, etc., there were three unexpected sightings.

The first was a red fox, out in broad daylight, as neat and tidy as a housecat, Walking puposefully through the salt marsh.  He looked briefly our way, dismissed us as not worthy his attention, returned to work.  Forty paces later, he turned into the dry grasses and disappeared.

The third was a screech owl (red morph) that had taken over a bluejay box and was peering out of the opening, a horned and hemispherical puff of feathers.

The second -- and best, if you're a birder -- was an American bittern.  Bitterns are among the most cryptic of birds.  This one was stalking along the edge of the water, a shadow made visible by movement.  When it stepped behind a plant it disappeared.  When it stopped moving it disappeared.  We tracked it along the shore for at least five minutes, a bird with a long, distinctive profile and, if ours was anything to go by, a most successful hunter

So I am happy and hope the same for you.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Mature Creche Scene


How long have we been setting out our little creche scene for Christmas?  So long that I can't imagine a time when we didn't.  And, as happens with such things, figures get added.  Up on the roof, for example, is a griffin.  He probably migrated out of Sean's D & D figurines.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

And for the puzzle-lovers among us:  How many of the additions can you spot?  I'll post the answers either late tomorrow or on Friday.


Monday, December 22, 2014

The Parable of the Creche


Merry Christmas, everyone!  This is one of my favorite times of the year.  And, that being so, it's time to present my annual re-telling of something that really did happen, exactly as I tell it here.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you...

The Parable of the Creche

When first I came to Roxborough, a third of a century ago, the creche was already a tradition of long standing.  Every year it appeared in Gorgas Park during the Christmas season.  It wasn't all that big -- maybe seven feet high at its tip -- and it wasn't very fancy.  The figures of Joseph and Mary, the Christ child, and the animals were a couple of feet high at best, and there were sheets of Plexiglas over the front of the wooden construction to keep people from walking off with them.  But there was a painted backdrop of the hills of Bethlehem at night, the floor was strewn was real straw, and it was genuinely loved.

It was a common sight to see people standing before the creche, especially at night, admiring it.  Sometimes parents brought their small children to see it for the first time and that was genuinely touching.  It provided a welcome touch of seasonality and community to the park.

Alas, Gorgas Park was publicly owned, and it was only a matter of time before somebody complained that the creche violated the principle of the separation of church and state.  When the complaint finally came, the creche was taken out of the park and put into storage.

People were upset of course.  Nobody liked seeing a beloved tradition disappear.  There was a certain amount of grumbling and disgruntlement.

So the kindly people of Leverington Presbyterian Church, located just across the street from the park, stepped in.  They adopted the creche and put it up on the yard in front of their church, where it could be seen and enjoyed by all.

But did this make us happy?  It did not.   The creche was just not the same, located in front of a church.  It seemed lessened, in some strange way, made into a prop for the Presbyterians.  You didn’t see people standing before it anymore.

I was in a local tappie shortly after the adoption and heard one of the barflies holding forth on this very subject:

"The god-damned Christians," he said, "have hijacked Christmas."

And I've received the first review of my next novel . . .

On the one hand, it's immodest of me to pass along praise.  On the other hand, I do have an obligation to do what little I can to promote my own fiction.  (If I don't, who will?)  So...

Tor, the publishers of my next novel, Chasing the Phoenix, in which my post-Utopian con men Darger and Surplus accidentally conquer China (these things happen), has sent out advance reading copies to select writers, hoping for blurbs.  One of them was Michael Flynn, who liked it greatly.  On his blog he wrote:

The dialogue is entertaining, the plot twists clever and supple, the narrative voice perfectly tuned, and the whole story suffused with sly Swanwickian humor.

This is, I confess, exactly the sort of response I was hoping to evoke in the reader.  Which doesn't, however, diminish the pleasure of reading such words, particularly when they come from a writer I respect.

You can read Mike's entire review/reaction here.

Above:  That's the creche itself, as of last night.  A lovely thing, really.  Especially at night.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Searching for the Bordello in Faerie and Other Matters


I received the latest copy of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction in the mail yesterday.  Two copies, actually, because I have a piece in it, “How Many Miles to Babylon: Researching ‘The Bordello in Faerie.’”  Which is, just as the title implies, an account of my investigation of the nonexistent institution at the heart of my my unsettlingly explicit fantasy.

Here's the opening paragraph:
Some years ago I wrote a story titled “The Bordello in Faerie”, in which a young man in a weary old redbrick factory town takes to crossing the river to visit the eponymous establishment and over the course of a few seasons learns some hard truths about himself.  This sort of tale usually glosses over the actual sexual acts taking place in such places.  But for artistic reasons, I thought it worthwhile to be explicit.  When my friend and fellow fantasist Greer Gilman asked to read the newly-finished typescript, I cautioned her about the graphic nature of its depictions and handed it over.  The next day, returning the text, she drew herself up straight and in an amused simulation of shock, said, “Sir!!!”Alas, if you want to read more, you'll have to dig up a copy of the Volume 43, Number 118, Autumn 2014 issue.  It's not a long article, but I thought it was of interest because performed my research entirely via lucid dreaming.  Surely there must be other writers who have done this, but it seems to me that this particular technique is underreported.  So I did my bit.

And Speaking of Short Fiction Day . . .

My friend Sally Grotta, of virtual publisher Pixel Hall Press, asked me to help spread the word: this Sunday, December 21, will be the second annual Celebrate Short Fiction Day, a holiday invented by author Nancy Christie.  They're hoping to make this a big thing, eventually.  But in the meantime, they'll be celebrating the day by giving away free e-stories.

You can read more about it at the Pixel Hall Press site here.

And on Monday . . .

It's an Annual Holiday Rerun Tradition!  I'll be reposting "The Parable of the Creche Scene," a true tale of the real meaning of Christmas and who, surprisingly, kidnapped it here in my neighborhood of Roxborough.

Be there or be not-jolly.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Solstice Fire!


It's Christmas time and you need something rare and all-but-unobtainable for the bibliophile you love.  But you don't happen to be rolling in money.

I have the perfect gift for thirteen of you.

Every year Dragonstairs Press, my wife Marianne Porter's "nanopress," sends a  Christmas chapbook to its friends and patrons.  Twelve months later, those chapbooks remaining are put up for sale.

Solstice Fire, comprising three seasonal works of Solstice-related flash fiction, has just gone on sale at the Dragonstairs website.  There are exactly thirteen copies available.  You can buy one for five dollars.

Why so cheap?  Well... When Marianne resolved to create hand-made, carefully-crafted collectibles in very small numbers, she asked me to use my small press contacts to help her set a price.  The first expert I consulted breezily said, "Fifty dollars!  Anything less and the serious collectors won't touch it."

The second (hi, Lawrence!) said "Anything above ten dollars and people won't buy it on impulse."

I passed the first price along to Marianne and she was horrified.  The second she liked better.  But finally she went with what she called the "Beanie Baby Model."  Beanie Babies, you'll remember were small and lovable stuffed toys that sold in limited editions for only five bucks a pop. Their business model was that if somebody wanted to buy a child a Beanie Babie (or a child with an allowance wanted to buy one) the price was so low they would.

Similarly, if you want a signed and numbered chapbook, one in an edition of a hundred, with a holiday theme, you can buy Solstice Fire for only five dollars.

Just don't roll it up in a cylinder and stuff it into a stocking.  Your beloved bibliophile will grind his or her teeth at you if you do.

You can find the Dragonstairs site here.

Above:  Sometime in the future, collectors who won't touch anything below fifty bucks are going to be offering serious money for this chapbook to someone who bought it for love of words. That makes me happy.



Monday, December 15, 2014

The Holy List of Antioch


If there's one thing my house suffers from more than it does books, it's paper.  I have boxes, bags, and piles of the stuff, and it's particularly hard to organize because every piece has to be read, judged, and filed, stored, or recycled separately.

I was going through a bag of papers yesterday and I came across the above.

It doesn't look like much, does it?  Just a mimeographed list of typewritten names with my own indented and asterisked with the notation "I approve," signed D. Jenkins.

That was my permission to take Honors English 201 despite the fact that it was a sophomore level course and I was a freshman.  This was at the College of William and Mary and somehow, within days of arriving, I had sought out Dr. Jenkins and convinced him that I absolutely had to take the Creative Writing course he taught right away -- now! -- rather than waiting a year.

That took chutzpah.   Also a submission story, which I had either written over the summer and had in hand or else wrote on short order to get into the class.  The story was titled "The Theoretical Man," and it was, of course, science fiction.

There was only one creative writing course in all four years of college, though you could take it for two semesters and it existed only because Dr. Jenkins wrote fiction himself.  It was taught as a workshop.  You were expected to write a story every week, the department secretary typed them up and mimeographed them, and only those who had submitted a story were able to comment on those written by others.  I forget if Dr. Jenkins' critique came before or after the comments.  But I know that every fault pointed out to me was received politely.  After which, I would go to my room and, in a fury, rework and rewrite the story completely in such as way as to avoid making the suggested changes.  If the dialog was bad, I'd write all the dialog out.  If the description was long-winded, I'd find a way to tell the story without describing anything.

It would be something like eleven years before I finally wrote something publishable.  But, my God, I learned a lot in that class!

A few years ago, Dr. Jenkins died and I went to a memorial held for him at the college.  One of his friends commented in his remembrance that somehow he always managed to find the students who had something special.  I hope it's not hubris to think that, in my own odd way, I was one of that that number.  Dr. Jenkins was certainly somebody special to me.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

dream diary

[December 14, 2014]

I spent most of the night letting tourists into my mind and showing them around.  This wasn't as onerous as it sounds because they were all apprehensive it would be a long-winded and pretentious tour.  So I simply showed them a poem I lad lying about and, after taking a few pictures, they would leave, relieved.

Friday, December 12, 2014

There Are Only 40,000 People in the World


So Marianne and I were in a B&B on Clontarf Road in Dublin some years back, when our landlady asked where we were from.

"Philadelphia," one of us said.

"Oh, the governor of Philadelphia stayed here once!"

"Um... I really don't think so."

"Yes, and she gave me a book as a present -- here it is."  Our landlady took a picture book of Pennsylvania from the shelf and showed it to us.  It was inscribed to her by Happy Fernandez.

Who was not only a one-time candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia, but a member of Marianne's then-church.

The other day, a friend commented on a historical article I posted on Facebook, that it was weird because she knew the people involved -- they were friends of her parents.  Well, these two incidents -- and a hundred more combined -- have convinced me that there are at most 40,000 people in the world.  Any more and such coincidences wouldn't be happening all the time.

I don't know who's arranged the fiction that there are billions of people on this planet, or why.  I only know that my version makes much more sense.

After all, have you ever met anyone from Ulan Bator?

Above:  Our large and sparsely-populated planet.