Archive for November, 2007

A Typical Thursday

November 30, 2007

Here’s what I did yesterday:

Part of the morning I spent wandering the halls of a closed government building, peering through windows and rattling doors to check the efficacy of their security procedures. (At the administrators’ invitation, of course. I don’t do this sort of thing freelance.) On the way home I stopped at a library book sale and picked up hardcovers of Prehistoric Animals and Prehistoric Sea Monsters with those classic plates by Zdenek Burian for two bucks a pop. Then (a little last-minute, I admit), I planted tulip bulbs. And I dropped by a bookstore and bought the February issue of Realms of Fantasy.

By good fortune, my new collection was the lead item in the book review column. Here are the highlights of what Paul Witcover had to say:

Nowhere is the health of the speculative genre more evident than in the short story . . . Lovers of fantasy have a lot to be thankful for — not least being the efforts of Michael Swanwick, who returns with a new collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, containing sixteen stories, most of them as good as any he has ever written: indeed, no less than three (the title story, “Slow Life,” and “Legins in Time”) are Hugo winners.

For our purposes, the stories of note are those set in a grimy, industrial version of Faerie that has been scoured clean of any remotely twee elements: a kind of steampunk fantasy. . . . These bawdy, tightly plotted tales will make you laugh out loud, but they don’t shy away from deeper meaning.

This is doubly true of the three stories featuring Darger and Surplus, two charming rogues, the latter of whom is a genetically engineered dog. . . . these lusty stories are really fantasies that allow Swanwick ample room to play with old myths, legends, and fairy tales, as well as to comment upon the politics of the present day, which he does with considerable zest.

But wait — there’s more! In that same column, Jeff Vandermeer reviews Gregory Frost’s imminent novel Shadowbridge. And, what the hell, I’ll give you the review in its entirety:

In addition to the return of heroic fantasy, stories-within-stories Scheherazade-style are back in vogue, which is good for Gregory Frost and his Shadowbridge, because not only is his protagonist, Leodora, a story collector and teller, but everyone lives on a huge bridge that is for all intents and purposes the world, as there’s nothing beneath but endless seas. To call the premise audacious would be an understatement, and yet it’s the stories and the characters that reign here, not the concept, for all the glitter. Leodora, fleeing her past, is a very real person, and her adventures and perils are also real. The idea of the naming of things and people being important, the idea of stories being not frivolous but vital, drives the engine of the plot. A cavalcade of other characters, from Leodora’s manager to her musical companion, also provide depth. The inclusion of gos and much of wonder in the setting is certainly a bonus, but almost isn’t necessary. The only real shame about Shadowbridge, however, is that it’s clearly part one of a novel cut into two parts (for marketing reasons?), with the second half to be published in 2008.

To which I shall add two comments:

1) Yes, apparently the original manuscript was deemed too long to be profitably published in one volume. But the second book is being published in early 2008, so there’s no reason to put off buying the first one.

2) So convinced am I that Shadowbridge, which I read in an earlier unfinished draft and which I am furiously anxious to finally get to read in its completed form, will turn out to be a classic fantasy novel, that I cannot resist pointing out that I know Gregory Frost personally. Greg and I have been friends for decades. That‘s the kind of writers I get to hobnob with!

(Oh, and incidentally, Realms of Fantasy is a journal that deserves your patronage and possibly even subscription. Why don’t you pick up a copy at your local bookstore, read it, and then make up your own mind about it?)


Diagramming Babel (Part 15)

November 28, 2007

(Today’s entry achieves parity with my blogspot blog.  From now on, I’ll simply post the two blogs simultaneously, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays)

Diagram 15. Lord Weary’s Empire at last! I’ve finally gotten Will into the subway system beneath Babel. There are two lines because one (the diagonal) follows the plot and the other Will’s transformations of personality.

From top left to bottom right (with the occasional bit out of order to make it all more sensible):



* He knows about he dragon & just has to admit it.

Lord Soulis Venereal

We are not an ordinary community We are an army


Becomes Jack Riddle


* X is a surprise

Voyage of Discovery

Becomes Will Again

Hanging Gardens


“Upstairs” is what the undergrounders call the upper levels. Will descending into the underground is of course a reenactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries, though he will not see the sun at midnight explicitly.

That Will already knows about the dragon was a discovery I made only as I charted out the diagram. Will is, I discovered, faster on the uptake than the typical fantasy hero, though it was not my original intention to make him so.

Lord Soulis was the original name for Lord Weary. Lord Venereal was the next stab at his name. It took me forever to come up with the right monicker for him.

Tresjoli was quickly renamed Hjördis. “Tresjoli” was just too sex-kittenish a name for the Lady-Thane.

“Cicerone” is of course a function rather than a name. The individual in question became known, after a false start or two, as the Whisperer. He takes Will on a voyage of discovery (which, when I came to it, turned out to be quite different from what I originally planned) at the climax of which the Whisperer’s true identity is discovered. This time it is a surprise.

The two X’s mark the spots where I removed the Whisperer’s true name from the diagram. There’s no point in my spoiling my own plot.

The Hanging Gardens, where Will gets his first glimpse of Halcyone is a blend of New York City’s Central Park and the Skansen in Stockholm. If you ever get a chance to pass up seeing the Skansen, by all means don’t.

The Inedible Jason Van Hollander

November 27, 2007

(Originally Posted Monday, November 26, 2007)

A month or so ago I dropped in on Jason Van Hollander. It was somewhere between noon and 1 p.m. “Have you had lunch yet?” he asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“I thought maybe you might like some soup.”

“Well, I already ate.”

“Why don’t you look in the cupboard and see if there’s anything in there you like?”

So I did. And discovered, as documented in the photo above, cans of Swanwick’s All Natural Soups: Dragon Lard Chowder (made with Free-Range Babelberries), Aryan-Style Geshmäcktfresser (made with Potato Peelings), and of course Donkey Fazool (made with Psychoactive Ingredients).

Yes, Jason had made his own soup labels. Including the paragraph of happy sales-talk above the bar code:

What could be yummier than Dragon Lard Chowder . . . start with scrumptious lizard skin boots, then add the best Babelberry Juice you could find (Swanwick’s of course — all unnatural*, raised in free-range conditions), and season it according to a mildew-laden, toxic Mayan recipe. No artificial ingredients. No preservatives. No cache de sexe residue. Just heat, eat, and savor your last gasp.

Distributed by
Bulk Dragon Lard Since 1852

*Artificial Babelberries used.
Minimally processed for Passover.

Nor does it stop there. Under Nutrition Facts are such categories as Velleity, Belatednes, Yawpishness, Murmin, Borborygmic, Asymptote, Vastation, Fustian, and Aporla. (One cannot but suspect that there is a line of Clute Soups somewhere.) Plus, of course, the list of:

Ingredients: Water, Carrots, Farina Husks, Free-range Babelberries, Aporia Broth, GInger, Garlic Powder (Contains Substantial Amounts of Octopus Lard).

But, as the guy in the Ginsu knives ad would put it, wait — there’s more! Jason Van Hollander, iron man of whimsy that he is, had similarly alternate-reality-ish copy on the cans of Donkey Fazool Soup and Geshmäcktfresser as well. Ask me next time you drop by the house and I’ll show them to you.

The SFWA Mill and Swill

November 26, 2007

(Originally Posted Sunday, November 25, 2007)

So I was at the SFWA annual Publishers’ Reception (which was, just to confuse matters, originally called the Authors and Editors Reception) in New York City the other day and . . .

But wait a second. Why does such a thing exist in the first place? Well, according to Tom Purdom, who was one of the original organizers, the idea was that throughout the year editors (who have expense accounts) traditionally stand writers (who do not) to drinks and the occasional meal. Then someone — was it Damon Knight? — decided that once a year the tables should be turned at an event where the writers paid for the booze. And it was so.

The “Mill and Swill,” as it’s come to be known, is an evening of intensive business-doing and not as much drunkenness as you would expect. (Though an aging literary lion did pour half his drink over my hand while lurching past and I did have to explain to an up-and-coming young writer that it was simply not done to punch people one has just met and who have done nothing to deserve such treatment.) But the best part of the reception, in recent years, has been the venue.

The event, you see, is held in the third-floor bar of the Society of Illustrators. Their museum, with varying shows featuring contemporary illustration, is open to the public and well worth the visit. But the bar, well, that’s another story. Hanging on the walls are works by N. C. Wyeth, Charles Dana Gibson, Hirschfeld, Frederick Remington, Montgomery Flagg, Maxfield Parrish… virtually all the great American commercial artists of the past century. It’s breathtaking.

So there I was and I had a great time. Above: Joe and Gay Haldeman. Good friends, good company, good people. And I saw a lot of other friends, and even did a little practical business. But the big thing, really, is how such an event makes you feel like a part of the literati. As of course you are, or why would you be there?

Diagramming Babel (Part 14)

November 25, 2007

(Originally Posted Wednesday, November 21, 2007)

Diagram 14. Progress at last! Will’s adventures underground have made it into the diagram, though why not until they’re over is far from clear to me. From left to right:





Nat & Esme

Dragon made manifest



Once again, all the past is prologue.

The “tuxedo” marker refers to the following passage (unwritten as yet; I carried it in my head for a long time), which takes place during a masked ball at House L’Inconnu, which Will has crashed:

For a heartbeat that lasted half as long as forever, Will stood paralyzed. Then he shot his cuffs in a kind of prayer to his tuxedo: I paid enough for you; now give me the confidence I need. He went straight to the elf-maiden, said “Dance?” and waltzed her out onto the floor before she could answer.

The unlabeled squared-off line that comes and goes is of course Alcyone. Her movements are becoming clearer in my mind. (Contrary to how it might appear, she’s not flitting about Will but leading her own life. The diagram only makes it seem that way because Will’s own rather twisty progress is rendered as a straight line.)

Again, Nat and Esme disappear abruptly and without leaving a forwarding address. It was important to get them out of the way so Will could operate on his own, without their rather overwhelming influences.

And I have no idea what the circled A means. None whatsoever.

Necronomicon — the String Quartet!

November 21, 2007

(Originally Posted Monday, November 19, 2007)

I am not, as Dave Barry likes to say, making this up.

Last Thursday, I went to the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, here in Philadelphia, to hear the Miró Quartet perform a string quartet titled “Necronomicon.” The Miró Quartet are four stunningly talented classical musicians and, in what is pretty much standard for such groups, presented two classical war-horses (Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 499, Hoffmeister, and Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2) along with one contemporary piece, in this case John Zorn’s Necronomicon.

The music itself was energetic (“Let’s hope we don’t break too many strings” one of the quartet said, before beginning), aggressively modern, and well-received by the audience. Tom Purdom, Grand Master of Philadelphia Science Fiction and local music critic, attended the performance with Marianne and me, and pointed out that this is a result of a new trend: Contemporary composers are willing to meet the audience halfway and audiences — who like the thought that there’s something happening in serious music today — respond enthusiastically. A couple of decades ago, the contemporary composers were all academics writing for their academic peers, and audiences sat through their pieces in stony silence, as the price they had to pay for the good stuff.

I liked the music but I won’t write about it, simply because I lack the critical vocabulary to do so intelligibly. But what struck me was how the piece demonstrated exactly how far Lovecraft had and had not penetrated into the culture. Obviously, his work has to have had broad influence, if it’s gone so far that there’s a string quartet named after one of his inventions. But . . .

There were five movements to the piece, titled Conjurations, the Magus, Thought Forms, Incunabula, and Asmodeus. Which, obviously, have very little to do with Lovecraft’s style of horror. And in the introductory remarks, it was clear that the Necronomicon had been assumed to be a book of spells for the conjuring of demons. (The young man also defined Incunabula as “a book of spells,” but the blame for that can probably be laid at the doorstep of our current educational system.) So clearly Zorn had not actually read Lovecraft’s works, but only heard about them secondhand.

From which I concluded that Lovecraft has risen to the status of cultural celebrity, somebody who people have heard of but not read.

Or maybe not even that far. On the way out, Tom ran into a representative of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which sponsors the concerts (possibly the largest such program in the country, and among the cheapest) and asked him if he knew that the piece was based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

With a quizzical smile, the man said, “Who?”

Diagramming Babel (Part 13)

November 20, 2007

(Originally PostedFriday, November 16, 2007)

Diagram 13. A simple one this week. This is another charting-out of the entire novel. From bottom to top:

“King Dragon & “Scythe”









“King Dragon” and “The Word That Sings the Scythe,” both already written, have been reduced to prologue. Will has reached Babel and the story can begin.

Alcyone – note that her name appears in a dark cloud; Will could have fallen in love with a much less difficult woman – appears and disappears almost flightily. Small wonder her emblematic beast is the hippogriff.

I know what “1/11” means, but I’m not about to tell. As for “Tuf” . . . no idea. Maybe it’s 7up? Nobody envies me my handwriting.

N&E – Nat and Esme– decisively disappear for an extended length of time. (This will become “Lord Weary’s Empire,” which I think of as Will’s Adventures Underground.) And later reappear equally abruptly and emphatically. This is so typical of each of them. “Hi, I’m back! Allow me to dominate your life until I decide to disappear again!” Thank God nobody’s like this in real life.

That backwards-L shaped thingie with the squared-off hook at the top of the plot represents the ending. It’s pretty much set in stone by now.

And . . .

I’m off to Philcon! Monday’s post will be about the Necronomicon string quartet. I’m not kidding you.

“Modern Fantasy At Its Finest!”

November 19, 2007

(Originally Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2007)

I’ve just learned that I got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. This is a very big deal among people who matter, like my agent (Martha Millard) and my editor (David Hartwell). How big? Well . . . big enough that I’m putting off the weekly Babel diagram so I can post it in its entirety here:

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick (Tor): * Starred Review * “In this triumphant return to the universe of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1994), Hugo-winner Swanwick introduces Will le Fey, an orphan of uncertain parentage. After defeating an evil mechanical war dragon who has enslaved him and his village, Will finds himself displaced by war, first imprisoned in an internment camp and then transported to the many-miles-high city of Babel. On the way, he falls in with Esme, an immortal child with no memory, and Nat Whilk, a donkey-eared confidence man of superhuman abilities. Fusing high technology seamlessly with magic, Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous conceits, fascinating digressions and sparkling characters. His language bounces effortlessly back and forth between the high diction of elfland and thieves’ argot to create a heady literary stew. This is modern fantasy at its finest and should hold great appeal for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys or China Miéville’s novels.” (Jan.)

So are you happy for me? I’m happy for me. Some of that bastard is definitely going on the book jacket.

A Useful (For the Teacher) Writing Exercise

November 16, 2007

(Originally Posted Monday, November 12, 2007)

I was browsing through a Swahili dictionary last night, admiring the usefulness of parakacha (the sound made by dried leaves), the whimsy of pingyinyika (to move the buttocks in a circular motion when walking or dancing), the musical cadence of mchachatochachato (slow and careful walking), and the poetry of gaagaa:

Roll from side to side,
Turn restlessly, as a man in pain
Or in delirium,
Or as an animal wallowing on the ground,
Or a ship in a swell.

All of which inspired me to share with you the only teaching exercise I ever invented.

Way back when, I had time to burn and was occasionally talked into teaching an afternoon workshop for high school age aspirant writers. When first I agreed to this, I asked my more experienced friend Gregory Frost for advice. “They want writing exercises,” he told me. “Because they want the chance to read their own work out loud.”

Fair enough. But when you’ve got three hours to work with and thirty students who want a chance to read, that eats up the free time fast. So I borrowed one exercise from Greg and assigned it to them all to take home with them. And midway through the class I gave them my invention:

First I read some examples from Joanna Russ’s “Useful Phrases for the Tourist,” a story in phrase-book form, containing such sentences as “This is my companion, he is not meant as a tip” and “Is that meant to be erotic?” and “If you do not cease doing that I shall call the police.” Then I instructed them to come up with (and write down) the definitions for three alien words. Not the words themselves, just the definitions. After however many minutes, I called on them one by one to stand up and give their definitions. Which, flush with various degrees of excitement and embarrassment, they did. Then the papers with their names and definitions were passed forward to me.

Here’s the exercise Greg gave me to assign at the end of the class: Go home, I said, and write one page from the viewpoint of something that’s not human. It can be an elf, a robot, an alien, a chair, anything. Without having it say anything about what it is or looks like, convey to the reader through its voice alone, what it is.

This is a far more useful exercise to the beginning writer than mine was. In an hour, it makes one a better writer. But it would have eaten up the entire afternoon and left me not one minute in which to pontificate. So I made it homework.

I too had homework. I carefully selected at least one definition from each of the students organized them into a brief dictionary. I added subheadings – At Work, Dealing With Others, Romance – and arranged it all so that the weak contributions didn’t stand out. Then I added a couple of definitions of my own to give the whole an overall shape and point. The last one, in particular, had provide a joke ending and so give closure to the lot. Then I gave it all a good title. Something better than “A Brief Lexicon of Planet Zorch,” though I forget what.

Penultimately, and most importantly, I wrote beneath the title and before the lexicon, “by . . .” and the names of all the students and myself in alphabetical order. Single spaced, it took up half the page. I’d arranged beforehand with the organizers for them to Xerox copies of the story and mail them to everybody who participated. Which they did.

The final product was of course nowhere near as good as Russ’s story. But it was adequate at least and maybe a little better. Everybody got to contribute to it and everybody got proof that they’d collaborated on a story with a published author.

I mention this so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll know what to do.

The Office Worker’s Babel

November 15, 2007

(Originally Posted Friday, November 9, 2007)

Yeah, they say it reaches all the way to Heaven. So what? All I ever see of it is my cubby, the coffee room, and a few hundred glass windows on the other side of which are more dispirited office drones like myself. All day long I shuffle papers, write reports, balance long lines of numbers, deal with self-important conference divas. It’s hard work, but nobody admires you for doing it.

At five p.m. I power off my PC and take the elevator down a few hundred floors to my apartment. I turn on the TV as soon as I get home. The blinds are always shut. I never look out. What’s the best I could see? The moon reflected in somebody’s window? Some perv with a telescope hoping somebody’s undressing with the blinds up? Big whoop. I’ll take American Idol, thank you very much. Some nights I nuke a TV dinner. Other nights I send out for Chinese. I’d like to take a vacation in Hawaii or the Yucatan, someplace where women sunbathe topless, but who’s got the money? It all gets eaten away by taxes and rent. Who knows where it goes? It certainly doesn’t go to me.

Sometimes at the office, though, I go to the window and place both hands against the glass. It feels cool on my palms. Then I think how great it would feel if I could just open that window, step out into the air, and fly. Yeah, it would only be for a few minutes and then I’d die. Still. For just that little while, wouldn’t it be glorious? Wouldn’t it be great?

But I guess that’s why the windows are designed so they can’t be opened.