Wednesday, April 26, 2017

As Good A Review As Any I've Had

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Writers are touchy beasts. I see it in others and I see it in myself and consequently I've given some thought as to exactly why this should be.

My conclusion is that the ability to write good fiction is such a difficult skill to master that it's only possible to muster the discipline required ifC one believes that writing fiction is the single most important thing one could possibly be doing. Which makes the writer one of the most important people on earth. Which is an untenable opinion for any sane individual to hold. We all know ourselves too well to believe that one.

Can you say "cognitive dissonance," boys and girls?

My latest collection of short fiction, Not So Much Said the Cat, received a glowing review in Foundation the other day. So, being a writer, I'm torn over whether to share it with you.

On the one hand, getting such a review in Foundation is a big deal. The reviewers' remit is not to deliver consumer recommendations (buy this! don't bother with that!) but to provide insight into the book being discussed. So in a sense, this is exactly the sort of reaction I've been writing to get.

On the other hand, to reproduce sentences like The stories gathered here demonstrate the artistry and depth to which Swanwick is capable of discussing the structure of reality, questions of authenticity, and the nature of humanity and its relationships or His ability to continuously depict these themes well throughout these stories lends credence to his nature as a writer and his skill at depicting realistic sf worlds inhabited by realistic individuals would go far beyond the social bounds of modesty.

(Though, of course, in the name or promoting not myself, I hope, but my work, I have just done so.)

So instead of cherry-picking the review for praise, I'll note an insight that Molly Cobb, the reviewer, had about my work. She said that my fiction thematically discussed, "questioons of authenticity and the nature of humanity and its relationships." Oh, and also of free will. But I already knew that.

Marianne read that and said, "Still writing about identity, are you?"

It was some thirty years ago that Marianne floored me by pointing out that everything I wrote dealt with the question of identity. That thought had never occurred to me before. But when I looked at my stories in that light, it was inescapable.

Now, decades later, Ms Cobb has just said pretty much the same thing.

I recall that in an interview once I was asked if I could name any insights a critic had given me into my own work and could not. Obviously, I had not been reading the critics carefully enough.



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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold

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You may remember that some time back I wrote a guest episode for the first season of the serial novel, The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. This is one of several works published by Serial Box, which sold by subscription after the TV model: Every week a new episode, satisfying in its own right but moving the overall story arc forward. The first season ended and, in the ripeness of time it has been collected in book form with a June publication date by Saga.

Well, the book just received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Here it is:

Magic is real and neutrality is almost unheard of in this innovative spy thriller set in Cold War–era Prague. Two factions of covert operatives, Flame and Ice, are competing for the fate of the world via control of 36 unwitting people, known as Hosts, who are channels of elemental magic. The hefty book is divided into 13 novella-length episodes (originally serialized on the Serial Box website), each written by one or two of the five collaborating writers; the team manages an impressively cohesive effort, brilliantly conceptualized and executed. As in a TV drama, each episode has a satisfying and relatively complete arc that helps build upon an overarching story. The installments are easy to read one at a time, but the tangles of alliances, secrets, and shocking double-crosses will have readers up all night mumbling, “Just one more.” 

Which makes this a particularly good time to mention the  upcoming New York Review of Science Fiction Readings event, An Evening With Serial Box. Featuring:

Matthew Cody
Joel Derfner
Max Gladstone
Ellen Kushner
Lindsay Smith
Michael Swanwick


And Guest Curator Amy Goldschlager

Here's the official boilerplate:


Come meet the writers who are bringing genre to the forefront of digital publishing! Serial Box is a publisher of serialized fiction in text and audio with five current ongoing series. As with television, their serials are collaboratively written by author teams. On May 2nd, representatives from several of these "Writers' Rooms" will join us to read from their projects. With stories touching upon Urban Fantasy, Mannerpunk, Magical Espionage, and Young Adult Science Fiction, the evening will be a diverse showcase of one of today's most exciting publishing platforms.

That's:

May 2
7 p.m.
The Booklyn Commons
388 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, New York


I honestly expect this one to be a tremendous amount of fun.


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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Iron Dragon's Daughter Ebook Sale!

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I'm of a generation that is really not comfortable with the whole self-promotion thing. However, a decent respect for my readers requires that when one of my publishers is promoting my work with a one-day sale I pass along the information. So...

The ebook of The Iron Dragon's Daughter will be featured in the Portalist's weekly deals newsletter on April 20th. That's on Thursday, two days from now. The ebook will be downpriced to $1.99 across all US retailers on that day.

And because my epublisher Open Road Media has made this possible I should mention that fact as well.

Um... and that's all The Iron Dragon's Daughter has proved to be the most popular fantasy novel I've ever written. So if you're a fantasy reader and an ebook reader and curious about my work, there's no better (or cheaper) place to begin.

You can sign up for the Portalist newsletter here.


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Friday, April 14, 2017

Moonstone, Toast, and Chip

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Spring is apparently when things turn literary. April 1, Samuel R. Delany turned 75 and The New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series held a reading and celebration in NYC. Alas, that same day I returned from a jaunt to Kitty Hawk and was too tired to make the 200-mile round trip drive so I missed it. Then, yesterday, Asimov's Science Fiction held a party celebrating its 40th anniversary. Again, for complicated reasons of plot, I didn't feel up for a drive that long.

So I made up for missing both events by going to the Moonstone Arts Center event held at Toast, a coffeehouse in the "Gayborhood" where Delany lives, to hear Chip (the name that his friends like to drop casually that he's known by) reading his latest essay.

Larry Robin put together both the event and a celebratory chapbook containing poems in Chip's honor by such luminaries as Lamont B. Steptoe and Gregory Frost. It's a lovely chapbook, which I was glad to have, Toast is an extremely pleasant place to spend a few hours, particularly with young bohemians coursing through the streets outside on a pleasant spring night, and of course Chip is famed for being an engaging speaker. The crowd was on the louche side (one young woman wore a shirt with the slogan Thank God for Abortion and another wore one emblazoned with I'm a Magical Motherfucker) and all either friends or people I wouldn't mind having for friends.

So, yes, it was an evening well wasted. If you haven't been to a literary event recently, I encourage you to do so at the very next opportunity.


Above: Chip is looking more and more like an Old Testament prophet with every passing year. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Darrell Schweitzer contributed a limerick to the chapbook.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Up the Rainbow

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Gardner Dozois has just announced the forthcoming collection of fiction by Susan Casper. I've agreed to write the foreword and Andy Duncan will write an afterword.

Here's what Gardner posted on Faceboo:

I have signed the contracts for a memorial collection of Susan Casper's short stories, called UP THE RAINBOW: THE COMPLETE SHORT FICTION OF SUSAN CASPER. Gray Rabbit Books will do the physical edition, followed six months later by an ebook edition from Baen. Introduction by Michael Swanwick, Afterword by Andy Duncan. 
We're hoping to launch the physical edition at Readercon, but we'll see how that goes. 

 Susan wrote and published two dozen stories over the course of twenty years. A couple of those stories were instant cult classics. She had stuff.

When the physical and e-books become available, I'll post buying information here. In the meantime, it's back to work with me. I have an introduction to write.


And speaking of Susan...

There are three appreciations of Susan in the current (April 2017) issue of Locus. One is by Gardner, one by her old pal Jack Dann, and one by me. I don't think my friends at the magazine would want me posting what I wrote while the issue is still on the stands. But I'm sure they won't mind my posting the opening paragraph:

When Susan Casper was in high school, she would sneak out early so she could go to WFIL at 45th and Market Streets in Philadelphia to be one of the background dancers in American Bandstand. That was Susan in a nutshell: bold, brash, independent, no respecter of authority, and avid for the joys of life.

I offer this as a small gift to Susan's many friends: Hey, guys! Somebody you knew was on American Bandstand! Cool, innit?


Above: Portrait of Susan Casper and coffee mug by Jane Jewell.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

My Next Door Neighbor, Who Invaded France

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Enid Hodkinson died today.  This means little or nothing to you, but only because you never knew her. Enid was Marianne's and my next-door neighbor for over thirty-six years She was the best of neighbors, bright and funny and friendly and upbeat. And in her youth she invaded France.

Enid was a communications tech in the Royal Air Force. She hit Normandy two days after D-Day and went with the armed forces across Europe. Immediately after the war, she met Albert Hodkinson, a young East-Ender who had started the war as a mechanic -- "Only gentlemen were allowed to fly airplanes," he told me -- but wound up, after the R.A.F. had run out of gentlemen, flying Lancasters over Berlin.

Albert and Enid were married for over seventy years, and it was only in the last two that she began to fade. After WWII, they came to America, where Albert worked as a contractor, and had children and then grandchildren and then great-grandchildren. If anyone ever had a good life it was Enid.

And now Enid is gone. I can only begin to tell you how devastated Marianne and Sean and I feel about that. She was one of those people who was always there and who always deserved to be there. The world is diminished by her passing.


Above: Enid with our then-thirteen-year-old son Sean after the blizzard of 1996. She'd been out shoveling snow, of course.


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Monday, April 3, 2017

"No, River Ice Is Breaking..."

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko has left the planet.

I speak and read no Russian, so I can't say I know his poetry, though I've read a great deal of it in translation. Having discussed poetry and the Russian language with Russians in Russia, I know that what you and I read in English is a pale shadow of the original.

Still. In 1961, Yevtushenko wrote a poem after a move to raise a memorial at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, where 33,771 (Stop! Read that number out loud: Thirty-three thousand. Seven hundred. Seventy one) Jews were murdered by the Nazis, was blocked by anti-Semites. Speaking out like that was dangerous. But he loved Russia and knew that she was, or should be, better than that.

You can read "Babi Yar" here. And I really think you should.

Yevtushenko was a brilliant poet and almost as brilliant a politician, as witness the fact that he survived the Soviet Union when so many other brilliant poets did not. I vividly remember when he first came to the United States in the Sixties at the height of the Cold War. At that time, everything was seen as East-West competition and dissident poets were viewed in America as points for Our Side. So all officialdom was hoping he'd have harsh things to say about the USSR. Maybe he'd even defect!

And what did he do? Smile and nod, say nice things, and go drinking with fishermen in Alaska. Afterward, he said that was the best part of America.

To which I can only say:Damn straight, Yevgeny!


And since we're talking about Russian poets....

The second time I went to Yekaterinburg, I met the poet Evgeny Kasimov, who had written a poem with a hidden reference to my novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I of course blogged about the experience. I had filmed his reading on my pocket camera and I threw that on the blog as well. So if you want some idea of the gulf between the poem and the translation, you can go here, read the poem, and then listen to it being read by Evgeny in Russian.


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Friday, March 31, 2017

Geek Highways: James Branch Cabell in Richmond-in-Virginia

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Richmond, Virginia is indelibly connected to Edgar Alan Poe, much to its civic disgust. Every building the man ever lived in there has been torn down and an attempt to have a statue raised in his honor was met with horror. There is a Poe Museum there, true, which I hope to return to someday (it has a pair of his socks!) but since I only had one day in town, I devoted it to Richmond's other great fantasist James Branch Cabell.

There I am with JBC's portrait in his library, which has been moved, books and furnishings and all, to the James Branch Cabell Library in Virginia Commonwealth University. This is a recursivity that would have amused Cabell greatly.

The day began with my visit (in pouring rain) to Hollywood Cemetery, a beautiful necropolis where Presidents Monroe and Tyler and Confederate President Davis are buried.  Cabell is buried there alongside his son and both his wives. On the stone is a crest showing Kalki -- rampant in both senses -- with the slogan not MUNDIS VULT DECEPI, which is recurrent in his work and means THE WORLD WISHES TO BE DECEIVED but IMPAVIDE, which means FEARLESSNESS.



After which, Marianne ran over to the main branch of the Richmond Public Library, which is located on the site of the long-vanished building where Cabell was born.




Finally, it was off to the Special Collections and Archives in the JBC Library at VCU, there to inspect four letters that Alistair Crowley wrote to Cabell and some interesting conversation with the curator of the Cabell papers, Ray Bonis, a man who knows considerably more about Cabell than I ever did. Which is something I have to respect.

The picture below should give you a good idea of the comfortable opulence of the room. I examined Cabell's collection of books and have to say it's quite nice. I could happily spend a week there, browsing. I had to admire his collection of occult and folklore and related books in particular.




There's so much more I could say about Cabell. I could write a book about the man and his work, and in fact I have: What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage: James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-First Century (preface by Barry Humphry, no longer available from Temporary Culture, though the ebook of it is). But this is running long as it is. So, instead, I'll give you a small notion of just what a big noise Cabell used to be: Below is a bust of one of his creations, Aesred, the plump and slightly sullen Goddess of Compromise. The sculptor  Edward R. Amateis crafted it from a block of marble imported from Greece to Rome in the first century C. E. and then gave it to him as a gift.

That's how big a noise James Branch Cabell once was. He was the single most successful living fantasist of the Twentieth Century. (Tolkien surpassed him, but onlyposthumously.)





And because life goes on...

I have been received the following news from Open Road Media, my ebook publisher,:


I’m pleased to let you know that Bones of the Earth will be featured in BookBub International, an ebook deals newsletter with subscribers in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, on 4/1/2017. The ebook will be downpriced to the equivalent of 1.99 in Canada on that day, and Open Road will promote the feature via social media.

So if you're Canadian, read ebooks, and like science fiction with lots and lots of dinosars this is your opportunity. If you're Canadian and don't read ebooks, that's fine too. But if you're Canadian and don't like science fiction with lots and lots of dinsosaurs, Rob Sawyer has a few firm words to share with you.

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Geek Highways: Digger's Dungeon

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(This post should properly have been made yesterday. Mea culpa.  I only just now found an online editing tool to make the photo fit for Blogger.)

Unless you're already a fan, this takes a bit of explanation. Dennis Anderson is famous in monster truck circuits for his series of Grave Digger trucks.There's the original to the fore. It was a mud bogger until a monster truck failed to make an appearance at a show and he volunteered to crush cars with his own truck. That sold him.

Over the decades, the Grave Diggers (there have been dozens of them) got bigger,more powerful,and more thoroughly spray-painted with skulls, ghouls, and similarly Halloweeny blue-collar art. And of course, they aged out.

So long as the teams (I think there are nine of them now, making the circuits) needed a place to store and restore trucks not in use, somebody decided to take some of the old truck bodies and make a roadside attraction out of them. Hence, Digger's Dungeon. Trucks, a bit of welder's art, an enclosure with a goat, a pig, and various poultry, strange stuff, and a gift shop where you can buy an action figure of Dennis Anderson.

Anderson had to retire recently, after a failed flip resulted in unspecified injuries. I hope they were minor and he'll make a full recovery. A man who has devoted his life to giving people joy (and, boy howdy, monster trucks do!) deserves nothing less.

You can find Digger's Dungeon in Poplar Branch, North Carolina. In fact, if you're driving through you can't possibly miss it.

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Geek Highways: "Yellowjack" Walter Reed's Birthplace

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Down a quiet road in a remote part of Gloucester County, Virginia, is the tiny house that was the birthplace of Walter Reed. Reed was the Army doctor who led the team that established that "Yellowjack" -- Yellow Fever -- was spread not by contact but by mosquito bites. This and other discoveries make him one of the fathers of epidemiology.

There I am, yesterday, in front of the house. Really, it should have been Marianne since so much of her work involved epidemiology. But life isn't always fair. Dr. Reed always credited Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay for discovering the disease vector and how to control it. Alas, we have only room in our memories for one name when crediting such things.

But, as either doctor would have told you, credit is a minor thing. What most matters is the number of lives saved, the sheer mass of human misery prevented.

For which we can thank those two men and all those who worked with them.


And, remarkably enough....

Remember Ardudwy, Will Jenkins'/Murray Leinster's house, which I blogged about yesterday? It's maybe two miles, certainly no more, from the Walter Reed birthplace. There are hidden patterns everywhere.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Geek Highways: Ardudwy

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On the bank of the York River, in a still-remote part of Gloucester County, Virginia, that was a heaven for his small daughters, sits Murray Leinster's house, Ardudwy. that's it up above.

Will F. Jenkins was a very successful fiction writer whose love of science led him to write science fiction, against his agent's horrified objections, under the Murray Leinster pseudonym. He was the single most important SF writer between H. G. Wells and Robert Heinlein. At a time when the stuff was mostly written by untalented hacks and paid accordingly, he wrote the kind of exciting idea-fiction that lit a fire in the young brains of Isaac Asimov and many, many other writers-to-be. He wrote the first "first contact" story. In "The Runaway Skyscraper," he invented alternate history. In "A Logic Named Joe," he describe the Internet in detail -- in 1946! He was the first Dean of Science Fiction.

And I met him.

I did! When I was 29, Dr. David Clay Jenkins (no relation), the single most valuable teacher I ever had at William & Mary (and there were many to whom I owe enormous gratitude) took me and my friend Paul Fuchs to meet the great man. I wrote a sketchy account of it here. Short version: He dazzled. He was everything a writer should be: Lordly, gracious, interested in everything, full of lore, bubbling with ideas, enthusiastic about great writing, in love with language, an amateur inventor. And kind to at least one young fool.


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Geek Highways: The Roanoke Colony

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Yesterday, Marianne and I went to Roanoke Island, site of the lost Roanoke Colony, the earliest and most enduring mystery of post-Columbian America.

In slapdash short: Sir Walter Raleigh (not in person; Queen Elizabeth wouldn't let him go adventuring in the New World) planted a small colony in what would later be North Carolina. If it succeeded, it would make a swell port which British privateers could raid the Spanish treasure ships. He also had dreams of peacefully colonizing North America by making the American chieftains British lords and their people citizens. The colony, however, was underprovisioned and sent their governor back for more supplies.

Enter the Spanish Armada. It was three years before John White (Virginia Dare's grandfather) was able to acquire a boat (all had been essentially nationalized to fight off the threat) and funding to return. Only to find that the colonists had taken up their weapons and essentials and left. In their absence, the buildings had been torn down and chests they had buried containing possessions they could not take with them had been dug up and their contents scattered about. The word CROATOAN carved into a tree suggested that they had gone to live with friendly Indians at Croatoan. White wanted to go look for them, but a storm came up so they went back to England instead.

Yeah, that last bit makes no sense to me either. In fiction, it would a clue. But maybe things will be clearer to me after I read a book or three.

We visited the site. A great deal has been added and nothing remains. There's an open-air amphitheater with the ocean behind the stage and the wind singing through the light scaffolding. There's a large fantasy of what an Elizabethan garden might have been like with proper funding and Twentieth-Century sensibilities created by the local garden club. There's a slope-shouldered recreation of the small dirt fort that had been built there, based on archaeological measurements.

Of the original colony, there is not a trace. Nothing remains behind but silence. And mystery.


Next up: Monster Trucks!

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Geek Highways: Kitty Hawk

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Okay, yes,  Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first flights from Kill Devil Hills, not Kitty Hawk and Kitty Hawk only got the credit because that's where the telegraph station was from which they sent the news.

That's just the fine print. It doesn't really matter.

What matters is that in what was then was a lonely, isolated corner of North Carolina, the Wright Brothers made their first four flights on December 17, 1903.  Since then, the sand dune looming over the site has been stabilized and turned into a grassy hill, atop which is a huge memorial. A small airstrip has been added. A life sized  installation of statues representing the brothers, their flyers, and everyone present at the first flight has been thrown into the mix. And the usual tourist center has been erected as well.

All very nice. But what's moving is to go to the boulder marking the place where the flyer took to the air and pace out the distance to stones marking where it came down for the first three flights -- hops, really, up in the air for a few seconds -- and then far beyond them to the end of the first sustained powered manned heavier-than-air flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds.

The moment that flight had been achieved, Boeing 747s became inevitable.

It's quiet at the memorial site and there's a steady wind from the sea. It's a good place to reflect how little time separates those two uncommon men from us.


Above: Marianne at the fourth touchdown stone.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Geek Highways: Wallops Island

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Officially, it's called the Wallops Flight Facility but I've never heard anyone call it anything but Wallops Island. It's not like there's a lot of anything else there.

Wallops Island is one of five main flight facilities operated by NASA and, let's be honest, isn't a patch on Canaveral. It's responsible for twenty to thirty sounding rockets a year, only four or five of which are launched locally. The rest are launched from sites around the world as needed. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which it operates, is probably best known today for the private-industry Antares rockets launched there by Orbital ATK.

Marianne and I stopped here on our way to Kitty Hawk, tracing in reverse a voyage that went from a 59-second flight to the Moon over the space of a single human lifetime. It didn't matter that Wallops Island has only two launch pads. Standing by the road, looking at the parabolic antennas aimed at the heavens, I felt like I was standing on the shores of space.

As of course I was.

As of course, so are we all.


Above: "Little Joe," used to test the Mercury capsule, its emergency escape systems in particular.


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Monday, March 27, 2017

Geek Highways: Bottle Trees.

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I spent the day wandering about marshlands, doing research for The Iron Dragon's Mother. Lots of nifty stuff: wild ponies seen from a distance, a gannet seen from three feet away and so on. But, necessary though all this was, none of it was geeky.

So today's blog is about a chance sighting of a cluster of bottle trees as Marianne and I passed through Stockton, Maryland yesterday.

A bottle tree is simply a dead tree whose branches have been cut short and then adorned with a glass bottle. Scholars have traced the practice back to Africa, where the practice had a religious significance. It survived American slavery and, although for a time looked to be on its way to extinction. Instead, it spread through the South to such a degree that a certain number of whites make them too.

So why do they exist today? For the same reason that Morris dancing and  Krampus exist today -- not because we necessarily agree with or even know their original purpose, but because they're fun. Because they're real. Because they satisfy something deep within the human spirit.

I look for stuff like this everywhere I go. I like to think of it as Evidence of Intelligent Life on Earth.

You can read a Smithsonian article about bottle trees here.





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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Geek Highways: Wallops Island

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As always, I'm on the road again -- this time, making a pilgrimage to Kitty Hawk, where human heavier-than-air flight had its humble beginning.

A long drive through grey and brown countryside brought Marianne and me to Wallops Island, site of one of  NASA's five main launch facilities. It's humbling to stand here, on the shores of space at the slender instant in time during which life leaves the planet.

When I was born, most people would have told you flat-out that human beings would ever walk on the Moon. Yet it happened only sixty-six years after that first fifty-nine second flight that it happened. That's roughly one human lifespan!

Long after Apollo 11, people commonly said that a computer would never beat a human grand master at chess. Then, in 1997, Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in a six-game match 3 1/2 to 2 1/2. So, as people will, the doubters redrew the goal lines and said that a computer would never beat a human go master.

On March 15, last year, AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol in the last game of a five-game match. Final score: AlphaGo 4, Lee Sedol 1.

Something to keep in mind next time somebody tells you we'll never have a true AI or a colony on an extrasolar planet.


Above: One of the rockets outside the Wallops Flight Facility. I probably had the plastic model back when I was a teen.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Geek Highways II

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As always, I'm on the road again. Or, rather, I will be soon. Sunday, Marianne and I had out for our second Geek Highways tour, a trek from Philadelphia to Wallops Island and then Kitty Hawk, with (I hope) strange stops in between. 

I'll be blogging every day, which should make a welcome change from the neglect I've been showering on the blog of late.

(For which, again, my apologies. I've been dream-deep in The Iron Dragon's Mother and it's taken me away from many a lesser effort. Luckily, the final sections take place on the seacoast of Faerie so I need lots of material on coastlands and marshlands. Which is, to be honest, the secret motivation behind this adventure.)

So, starting rather late Sunday, expect to see more science-and-literature adventures here. It'll be fun!


Above: From the original Geek Highways, three years ago, the historic Gardner Dozois house, home of the young writer-and-editor-to-be.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

"A Week Without Magic"

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My contributor's ARCs (Advance Reading Copies -- early, usually less well made copies of an upcoming book, used for various promotional purposes, including sending to reviewers and placating authors) of Season One of The Witch Who Came in From the Cold have arrived.

The Cold Witch Project, as it's been informally called, is a work of serial fiction modeled after television serials.  In this case, it's a series set during the Cold War, in which all the players are not only aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union but also with two warring occult powers, one of them equivocally Evil and the other only ambiguously on the side of Good with members of the KGB and the CIA on both sides of the fight. A wilderness of mirrors, basically, and full to the brim with twisty turns of plot.

Serial Box, the publisher, makes each episode available as individual e-publications. But the idea is to subscribe to the series and receive regular fictional updates on the doings of characters you've come to know and care about.

Mostly, the episodes are written by a small cadre of writers who work well together, but once per season a guest writer is invited to play in their sandbox.

Which is how I came to write Episode 6: A Week Without Magic.

It was a fun project to be involved with. I was very pleased to learn that I could work within the group's constraints and to their deadlines. And I was happy with how it all came out. Though I did have to throw a character and a subplot for which there was simply not enough room. But I did get to plant a bit of foreshadowing near the beginning of the episode and see it flower -- so to speak -- at the end. Which was immensely satisfying.

And now the first season is slated to be published by Saga Press (an imprint of Simon &Schuster) in non-ebook format. What we Old Hands persist in referring to as "real books." Which must mean that it's doing pretty well.

As well it should. The series is enormous fun. And it's still going on. You can subscribe to Season Two here.  Or you can wait for Saga Press to release the real book of Season One this June.


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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The First Step to Writing Well...

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You can always tell when I'm swamped with work. Either I don't manage to post on this blog or else I offer writing advice.

For today's writing advice, I'm going to tell you the first step to writing well. And that is writing badly.  This is absolutely essential. William Gibson once observed that the first duty of a writer was to overcome a perfectly justified loathing for the sound of his or her own voice. Similarly, in order to write well, you must be willing to put down words on paper in such dreadful combinations as you would blush to let anyone see.

There are two distinct stages to this dreadful writing. The first is when you're still unpublished and unaccomplished. You must write and write and write even though almost everything that flows from your mind/pen/fingers is loathsome. This is, alas, the only way there is to learn. And, as an adjunct, you must treasure every paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that comes out well.

The second stage is when you're published and have a career going well. You must write as well as you can, of course, but that's rarely going to come flowing out of you in final form. So you have to be willing to write badly and then correct/improve/rewrite. It's possible to raise your standards for yourself so high that you never publish anything again. I've seen it happen.

But, no, I'm not going to let you see one of my first drafts. Are you mad? No.

End of sermon. Go thou and sin no more.


Above: My desk at the current moment. There are no conclusions to to be drawn from the tidiness or lack thereof of an author's desk. Everybody has their own style. Gregory Frost's office is as neat as a pin. And yet he writes beautifully. Go figure.


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Friday, March 10, 2017

Susan Casper's Clowns

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It's been a week since Susan Casper died but it feels like forever. She left a big gaping hole in reality when she left us.

Some time ago, over the course of a couple of years, I did a book-length interview with Gardner Dozois,  covering every story he'd written to date from the beginning of his career. The book was published by Old Earth Books as Being Gardner Dozois. Gardner had written a couple of collaborations with his wife, so when we came to those, I asked Susan to sit in on the interview.

The following excerpt from the book covers "The Clowns," written by Susan, Gardner, and Jack Dann. I decided to share it with you because it gives you some sense of Susan as a writer. But also, I have to confess because the opening exchange demonstrates something of her wit.


“The Clowns,” co-written with Susan Casper and Jack Dann, appeared in PLAYBOY in August 1985, and...

Gardner Dozois: ... and ever since Susan’s been telling people that a picture of her appeared in PLAYBOY.

Susan Casper: Yeah, I had my picture in PLAYBOY.  It’s fun to tell people that.

Gardner Dozois: They’re all very impressed.

Susan Casper: They are!

Gardner Dozois: Some young girl last night in the Internet chat said, “Wow!  You must have been pretty!”

Susan Casper: Well, I was.  I still am.

The other stories you two were doing in collaboration at the same time were humorous, and this one is anything but humorous.  How did this get started?

Susan Casper: Gardner had this idea he’d been keeping in the back of his head for a very long time.  He made the mistake of telling Jack about it...

Gardner Dozois: This was in 1983, November according to my notes.  Jack and Susan and I were all sitting around in our old apartment on Quince Street.  We were talking about weird stuff.  We were having one of those conversations where you talk about freaky, weird, possibly supernatural things that you’ve seen or heard of.

Susan Casper: And you and Gardner and Jack had been doing an awful lot of collaborations, and Jack turned around to me – I had not yet, at this point, had anything published – and told me that we really ought to do something together, because I had been writing for a while.  I said yes, that sounded like a good idea to me, and he came up with this idea that Gardner had actually mentioned a long time ago.  This was an idea for Jack and I to write, the two of us.

Gardner Dozois: No, earlier you and Jack were talking about how you ought to do a story together – then we had the conversation about weird stuff, and in the spirit of this conversation I related an anecdote that a guy had told to me in the Village.  Years ago, when I used to live in the Village, I had known this guy who was a heavy drug user.  The last time I had ever seen him, he told me about how clowns were following him around everywhere.  Nobody else could see them but him.  Part of the anecdote, which didn’t get into the story, is that he would be alone in the apartment late at night, and he would get up and go into the bathroom, and there would be a clown sitting on the toilet, grinning at him.  He would be riding on his motorcycle and he would feel cold arms close around his waist, and he would look over his shoulder and there’d be a clown riding behind him, grinning at him.

So I told this story, and as was his wont, Jack said, “Wow!  What a great idea for a story!  Susan, that can be the story that you and I write together!”  You started talking about this story, and the next thing I knew, Jack had rushed over to the typewriter, and you were writing this story about invisible clowns.

Susan Casper: We’d gotten all of about four sentences.

Gardner Dozois: I was kind of sulky about this, because I had been carrying around this story idea for years, and now you were writing this story, and you weren’t even consulting me or cutting me in on it!  You talked about this story for the rest of the evening.  The next day you were still working on the story, and I finally got pissed and said, “Well, if you’re going to write my story, then I have to be cut in on it!” 

So I insisted on dealing myself into the collaboration.

Susan Casper: It was an interesting thing, though, at this point to be collaborating with the two of them because, as I said, I hadn’t actually had anything published.  Jack would send me manuscript – not much, a couple of lines – and an outline of where I should take it.  I was sitting there going, this doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t sound right, and this dialog doesn’t work right.  But at the same time, being the unpublished member of the group, I felt kind of funny overwriting Jack, and saying, “No, it should go this way, and, no, the dialogue should sound like this, and, no, this is what they should say.”  But finally they convinced me that the only way it was going to work was if I just did it, the way I felt I ought to do it, and so that’s what I eventually did.

I did a lot of the original writing on that story, and then I’d send it to Jack and he’d do a little bit, and then he’d send it back to me and I’d do more.  Now what happened was while I did a lot of the original writing on the story, they both came along and overwrote what I wrote.  So I don’t feel like I did most of the story.  But I certainly did most of the first draft.

Gardner Dozois: You had a good feel for the dialogue of the kid and his family.  Your kid-and-family dialogue was actually more authentic-sounding than Jack’s was.  So you overwrote most of that, as I recall.

You made some basic changes in the original vision.  The clowns are dressed in black and white, which was a sinister touch, and they’re going around actively killing people, shoving them in front of cars and whatnot.

Susan Casper: It’s funny, within a year it became a major motion picture.  For which we never saw a dime, I might add.

Gardner Dozois: What was it called – “Clowns from Outer Space”?

Susan Casper: Something like that.  “Killer Clowns from Outer Space,” I forget.

That would have been a coincidence, right?  Rather than somebody actually stealing the idea?

Gardner Dozois: Who knows?  It did appear in PLAYBOY.

Susan Casper: It certainly was in a source where people could have seen it.

Gardner Dozois: We didn’t think it was actionable enough to try to sue anybody over.

Susan Casper: Actually, we didn’t find out about it until it was too late.

Gardner Dozois: Of course, there are precedents for this.  One horror writer, I forget who it was, it might have been Robert Bloch, was talking about what horror was.  Horror was...

Susan Casper: You go to the circus, and you have fun, and you buy a balloon, and you watch the clowns, and you laugh at the clowns, and you have a wonderful time.  And then you come home from the circus, and you go into your apartment, and there’s the clown.

Gardner Dozois: A lot of the stuff from the original anecdote that the guy told me did not make it into the story.  Because we made it a child protagonist, he’s not riding the motorcycle and feeling the clown putting its arms around him.  The going into the bathroom and finding the clown there scene didn’t make it in either.

Susan Casper: We came up with the swimming pool sequence instead.  Which actually works better, with the two children.

Gardner Dozois: Susan wrote perhaps the bulk of the story.  What my contribution mostly was was working on the pacing.  I tried to give it more of a suspense movie kind of pacing.  I remember reworking several of these scenes to stretch them out in a way that would heighten tension. 

Susan Casper: He also, as he always did with collaborations, went over and smoothed things out, because my prose and Jack’s are nothing alike at all.  You could see real obvious welts where the story had gone back and forth between the two of us, and where it left huge chunks of what Jack did, and pieces I’d rewritten, and stuff.  He smoothed that out.  I certainly was not capable of that at that point.  I don’t know if I’d be capable of that now.

You never do provide a rationale for who these clowns are, or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Susan Casper: That’s the point.

Gardner Dozois: There’s a rationale, of course.  As in most of my stories, you could read it that none of these events are really happening, and the kid is just insane.  Or has gone insane.

Susan Casper: There’s a rational explanation for everything that happens in the story.  You can look at it as the kid just seeing these clowns, and the boy really does just drown.  But at the end, when he goes into the bedroom and sees the clowns there, who is he killing?  Of course, it is his parents’ bed.  If you look at it that way, the true horror is that he sees these clowns, but he’s actually killing his parents.

But I wanted to leave that open to public questionability.  I didn’t want to tie it down.

Gardner Dozois: The question is, has he gone insane and just thinks he’s seeing clowns, or is he really seeing clowns?  And of course, as with the thing in “The Gods of Mars,” it depends which way you collapse the wave-function.  One possibility is that he’s actually seeing these supernatural beings that are going around pushing people in front of buses, and then they come after him.  The other way to look at it is, he’s had a psychotic breakdown and is just making up all of these clowns as persecuting figures.

Susan Casper: I haven’t looked at this story for a long time, but I seem to recall that I was very, very careful to make sure there was nothing tangible that the clowns did or left behind.  That it was all the way possible from beginning to end that it was all in his head.

Gardner Dozois: Now, one potential weakness for this story is, we don’t give a reason why he starts seeing clowns, in a supernatural sense.  He doesn’t blunder into an old Indian graveyard or something.  He just suddenly starts seeing clowns.  To my mind that makes it a little more likely that it’s the psychotic breakdown explanation that’s the valid one.  There’s no real reason that these clowns start haunting him, or that he starts to see them.  You would think there would have to be a supernatural rationale for why he suddenly started seeing the clowns, and there really isn’t one given.

Susan Casper: There was at that particular time period a great debate going on in the horror field between what had previously been foremost in horror, psychological horror, and what was coming to the front in the horror field, which was very tangible, very gory, very realistic, striking-with-the-knife kind of horror, dismembering people kind of horror.  I had kind of wanted, within the boundaries of the story, to make a statement for the former.  Because that’s what I think is really scary.  Scary is in the head.  It’s not in the blood, it’s not in the guts, it’s not in seeing actual pieces of people lying on the ground.  Horror is, as Bloch said in that story I mentioned about the clown, the out-of-place in the commonplace.

Gardner Dozois: We set up the possibility of it all being a psychotic break on the kid’s part by mentioning that he had had psychological difficulties before.  In fact, his parents are very embarrassed about him because he was a nut, basically, or had had psychological treatment of some sort, which in those days was a big stigmata.  So that’s all set up there, so you can if you wish interpret the story in that light.

At one point Susan and Jack and I actually sat down over dinner and were discussing doing a novel-length version of this story.  But it didn’t come to anything.  Although I think it would have been possible.

Susan Casper: It would been, but I’m not sure anybody would have bought it.

Gardner Dozois: Well, that’s another story.  At the time, I think somebody might have.  The big horror boom was underway then.  Now, it’s probably problematical.

I think what kept us from having any real enthusiasm for it was that you would have had to just plug more incidents into the same structure, rather than adding anything new in kind.  You would have just had to plug in more incidents of him being chased around by clowns into the same basic structure.

Susan Casper: My basic objection to turning it into a novel is that I don’t think we could have done it without putting out a real answer there.  Yeah, the kid was crazy, or, yeah, there actually were clowns, and this is why they were following him around.  I didn’t particularly want to do either with it.

Gardner Dozois: Of course you could come up with a metaphysical structure where the clowns are always there, and every time somebody falls in front of a bus or falls down the stairs, it’s because there was a clown there pushing them.

Susan Casper: The clown as death. 

Gardner Dozois: Basically.  Or the clown as malefic spirit, at any rate.

Susan Casper: The grim reaper in orange wig and funny nose.

Gardner Dozois: That’s what the kid believes, at any rate.

Susan Casper: Anyway, I didn’t want to tie it down.  I didn’t want to make it specific.  I liked the story exactly the way it was.  I like the fact that people were unsure whether or not it was actually happening or all in the kid’s head.  In fact, that’s the main thing I get asked by people who’ve read the story: Was it real, or was it all in the kid’s head?  And, of course, the only thing you can say to that is, “Well, what do you think?”

Gardner Dozois: Actually, the bulk of the things that I’ve written, it’s probably possible to ask the question, is it real or is it all inside the guy’s head.



And as long as we're on the subject... 

Old Earth Books publisher Michael Walsh paid me an advance that covered the entire run of Being Gardner Dozois, which means I won't get any additional money from future sales of it. So I feel morally justified here in plugging a book I'm proud of.

Being Gardner Dozois is currently available from Old Earth Books. You can find the page with ordering information here.  Or you can just go the main page and wander around. They've got some very nifty books, available at quite reasonable prices.

Or you can write the Dragonstairs Press, which is Marianne Porter's "nanopress," and which still has a few copies of the book, which are both new and autographed by both Gardner and myself.It's not listed on the webpage. But it is available for sale. Terms upon request.


Above: Photo of  Susan Casper by Ellen Datlow, whose photographic record of the science fiction world over the past few decades is a treasures. Thanks for giving me permission, Ellen.


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