Archive for January, 2008

Yet Another Rave Review

January 31, 2008

Technically speaking, I’m supposed to be flogging The Dragons of Babel here. But my latest collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (available for a shockingly low price from Tachyon Publications, as well as better bookstores everywhere) just received a glowing review in online literary zine Rain Taxi. Modesty prevents me from quoting exactly what Kristin Livdahl said about “one of the best short story writers in speculation fiction,” but you can read the review itself here.

Or, better yet, just check out the entire zine.


Diagramming Babel (Part 24)

January 30, 2008

Diagram 24. Is there no end to these things? The terrifying truth is that I’m not even being comprehensive here. These are only the best of the lot — there are plenty more I’m not posting.

Here’s another way in which these diagrams are useful. Some mornings you boot up the machine, stare at the screen, and don’t have the slightest notion of how or where to begin. That’s when it helps to diagram out the chapter before you as clearly as you can. Stare at it and then add bits of dialog or plot to be included. You’re already working on the chapter. From there to actually writing is only the slightest of transitions.

Sort of like warming up a car on a cold morning.

From bottom to top:

Ch. 15

A Walk Through House L’Inconnu

Things she will not tell you

I have fantasies too. One day she will weaken
and I will pull her through the mirror
to slave for me as I slave for her



“… don’t seem worried”

“I am charged to see you home safe”





Look how crisp and sure this is! The writing is going smoothly.

A is for Alcyone and W . for Will, of course. I will not tell you why Alcyone’s plot-line splits in two, nor who ACf might be (actually I forget what that stands for; the character acquired a different name in the writing). But how appropriate that her line should look like a martini glass! If characters were drinks, Alcyone would definitely be a martini: Austere, a bit astringent, commanding respect, infinitely desireable. A gin martini, of course. Probably Boodles.

The lack of comment along the stem suggests that I’ve already written the opening of Chapter 15.

M. stands for Manticore. The grammatical error in the dialog is a reflection of exactly how quickly I made these things. Also that I had the next couple of bits already in mind and was anxious to get them down before I forgot them.

B. M. is the Burning Man. Admirable fellow. But he does tend to butt in at the most inopportune times.

“Manticore-ride” is (no duh) a ride on a manticore. It’s scenes like that which fantasy exists for.

V. is for the vixen. Yet another character to whom Will is rather an incidental inconvenience.

Note that arrogant flourish at the end. It means “and so on, to the end.” I had the entire rest of the novel in my head by then.

Oh, and this being Chapter 15 means that I’m three-quarters of the way through the novel. My natural length for novels is twenty chapters of twenty pages each. Since there are about 250 words per page, that’s five thousand words per chapter and a hundred thousand words in the book. Normally, each chapter hits the mark within one page. This time around, several were noticeably longer or shorter. I can’t tell you how much that worried me.


Nearer, My God, To Thee

January 30, 2008

It always happens. I walked into Saint Mark’s Square in Venice and my camera died. Five photos into the Kremlin, my camera died. Two days before Chattacon, my camera died.

So I don’t have a photo of myself hovering forty feet above the ground in a bucket truck (what we here in the North call a cherry picker) at Chattacon. But my friend and editor, David Hartwell, was there, and he had a camera, and as soon as he emails me a copy, I’ll slip in in above.

Here’s what happened: I was at Chattacon this past weekend as a guest of honor (and I’ve got to say that Chattanooga’s got enough cool stuff for one very enjoyable weekend; but, virtuous person that I am, I resisted the impulse to blow off the convention), and had a great time . . .

Okay, let me digress. The other author goh was Lynn Abbey and in conversation she told me that she’s “caught my second wind.” I. e., she’s bursting with new ideas, which should be great news for her fans. Peter David, probably best known to most of us for his Sir Apropos of Nothing series, confided that he regretted calling the second book The Woak to Wuin because it turns out that if you ask for that title in a bookstore the clerk will assume you have a speech impediment and won’t find it, and then, turning to Lynn, swore that in the next book Sir A. would take refuge in Lynn Abbey. David Hartwell shared with the convention as much insider publisher info as he was legally allowed to. Eric Flint turned out to be one helluva nice guy. John Ringo held forth to an appreciative audience at a local restaurant. And on and on and on.

Which is to say that Chattacon was rich in the kinds of encounters you go to a convention to have.

But the coolest part of the weekend was that Taz (formally known as Jeff Reneau) brought his bucket truck to the convention. He services signs at car dealerships across many states, a job that has to among the best in existence on a good day and the exact opposite on blustery one. So, emboldened by the fact that he was an awfully likeable guy, I asked if he’d take Marianne up in it. And then . . . if he could . . . maybe . . . me?

Up I went.

Each bucket truck is custom-built, and Taz’s truck is cooler than most in that the boom has a full 360 degrees rotation. And the experience? Wonderful and unlike anything else in the world. As Marianne said, it’s not at all like being high up on a building because there’s empty space all around you. And though it’s rather like flying but slower and smoother. Birds would have envied me.

Even better, Taz taught me how to operate the boom and, under his watchful tutelage, I brought it down.

Oh, man, is that fun!

Taz told me that sometimes he’ll take a bottle of wine and his wife Priscilla up with him to watch the sunset — which they’re able to see for something like half an hour after the people on the ground are lost in darkness.

Husbands! When was the last time you gave your wife a present half so romantic?


An Early Friday Post

January 30, 2008

Hi, yes, I know it’s still Wednesday. But tomorrow morning I fly to Chattanooga, home of the fabulous Chattacon, and on Friday I’ll be in full convention mode. So, rather than shortchange you guys, I’m blogging early.

And for the very first time, I’m going to write a blog-like blog! Yes. One where I simply send you to someplace else on the web where something genuinely cool is happening.

Here’s why. Years ago, I was on a panel at a computer human interface convention. I could talk for hours about how how much fun that was. But one thing that really grabbed me was a device that some major Japanese corporation (Sony, I think) had come up with. Something I think of as a “hand-grabber.”

The hand-grabber was simply one of those cheap webcams, except that it detected only IR. It also had a ring of weak IR lights around the lens. So anything that moved in the near-range focus of the camera registered on the program. In practice, this meant that your body was too far away to matter. But if you reached out toward the camera, it could place a wireframe of your hand (either visible or invisible) into the appropriate program.

A corporate model demonstrated this by playing a set of virtual bongos, stretching a manga character by grabbing the air with her hands, and moving icons about on a (projected) computer desktop.

Why did I want this? Simply because instead of clicking-and-dragging, it would have given me the capability of grabbing a program or document I no longer wanted and SLAM DUNKING that bastard into the wastebin.

Nothing ever came of this, alas.

But now an uber-nerd named Johnny Lee has come up with a very similar (and lo-tek) way of using parts of a Nintendo Wii to enable a one-person virtual reality program. Here it is:

Yes, children, Bruce Sterling’s spex have taken a faltering baby-step toward reality! Johnny Lee is one cool fellow. I like the way this guy’s mind works.


Separated at Birth?

January 18, 2008

Last week I made an appearance at the South Street Seaport Museum, as part of the New York Review of Science Fiction reading series. In the audience was new writer Jermaine Hall (he’s midway through his first novel), who is something of a caricaturist, and was kind enough to give me the above sketch, which he made while I was reading.

“Your hair isn’t that spiky,” Marianne said when she saw the drawing, and promptly carried it off to hang in her office. So I guess that means that everything else is pretty much spot-on.

But looking like me is a private tragedy. Here’s what I wanted to draw your attention to: Notice the slovenly slouch, the smudged glasses, the self-absorbed scowl. I could be the long-lost brother of Dave Davenport, the much-put-upon minion of evil scientist Helen Narbon in Shaenon K. Garrity’s webcomic Narbonic.

Not close enough for you? Then how about this? Dave and I used to both be three-pack-a-day smokers. I quit by going to Ireland without my cigs when Marianne and I decided it was time to make a baby. Dave quit by going back into his own past, as part of an involuntary time travel experiment, and not acquiring the habit as a teenager.

Coincidence or conspiracy? You tell me.


My Chattacon Schedule

January 17, 2008

Chattacon is only a week and a day away, and it’s roaring down on us like some mighty . . . some enormous . . . Oh, damn, I just know there’s an appropriate simile for what it’s roaring and hissing and chugging down on us like.

In the meantime, I just received my marching orders. I mean schedule! Here it is:

Chattacon Programming Schedule


7PM Finley Opening Ceremonies: Guest Speeches

8PM Gallery A&B Meet the Pro’s Reception


3PM Gallery A Is it really worth the effort to write a book? Consider the odds: in 2004 over 1.2 million books were published-only 10 sold more than a million. Michael Swanwick, Toni Weisskofpt, Gerald Page, Peter David

4PM Centennial Lobby Autographs: Michael Swanwick

5PM Gallery A How Big is Big, How Small is Small, How Far is Far: The size, scope and majesty of space. Phillip Sacco, Michael Swanwick, Tom Dietz, Brad Strickland

6PM Gallery B Reading: Michael Swanwick


12 Noon Finley A last chance to meet the guests-Q&A time. Michael Swanwick, Lynn Abbey, Peter David, Eric Flint

And of course, there’s a lot of stuff involving other people which attendees will want to look into, including live music, belly dancing and (I am not making this up) a “haiku slam.”

I’ve posted my schedule so that anybody looking to say hi or get an autograph or whatever will be able to find me. But I expect to be wandering about and easy to locate for the entire weekend. Here’s a tip for anybody who’s new to convention going: When you’re looking for a writer, always start with the bar.


Diagramming Babel (Part 22)

January 16, 2008

Diagram 22: Things are coming to a head. Will and Alcyone have finally reached a point in their relationship where they can speak frankly to one another. And, quite frankly, they speak more frankly than the reader is probably expecting.

I’ll transcribe the notes at the bottom in the annotations. From bottom to top:


The Office


Flight *


& truth


Annotations and Explanations:

There are two footnotes/additions after the diagram. The first and lower one reads: Trickster Tale RAVEN.

The second is in a kind of pidgen shorthand I invented and reads:

Alcyone is fearless. She can speak truthfully.
– Why did you steal the ring?
–To learn the truth
–Did you?
–Did it make you happy?
– What do you think?

As before, the dialog is in my college pal Jay’s abbreviated emotional gist for what I want said, rather than the actual words they’ll use.

What I’m doing here is basically figuring out where I can find room to fit all the explication that has to come out naturally. Otherwise, the chapter will turn into one of those dreary exercises where two characters explain things to each other. (“So the monster was actually seven men in an elephant skin?” “Yes, all part of my sister’s warped plan to get elected to City Council.” “But then why …?”)

By this time the reader has to have doubts that the Missing Prince scam will actually work, so Will has to explain its mechanisms. The hastily-scrawled footnote sign shows that I decided on the spot to have him do so by telling a trickster tale, and specifically one starring Raven. Since this is a trick that hasn’t been done in the novel before, it should be more entertaining than straight exposition would be.

The office section is heavily shaded because that’s the scene I expect to spend the rest of the day working on.
The back-and-forth arrows in the office are people coming and going with orders from higher-ups and work they expect to be done. Anybody who’s ever tried to work through the nuances of a romantic entanglement during work hours will understand how annoying this can be.

The H stands for “hippogriff.” At this point I meant to establish exactly why the ring had been stolen while the two were in flight to interview the West. By the time I got to the flight, however, there was so much going on that there simply wasn’t room for it. So I added a scene in a later chapter, where the reader gets to witness the ring in use, rather than hear about it.

The W stands for the West, one of the few significant characters in the book who is non-recurring. I forget what the thesis-antithesis-synthesis-truth thing was all about, but I’m sure I took care of it in the text.
Note that I originally thought Will and Alcyone could go off with each other at the end of the novel. The ring scene pretty effectively put the kibosh on that notion.


“Yes, I Am Wonderful, Aren’t I?”

January 14, 2008

When I was in Chengdu, Neil Gaiman told me that he was in the middle of a months-long publicity tour for Paramount. Me, I made two jaunts to New York City last week to promote The Dragons of Babel. One was to read at the New York Review of Science Fiction readings series, which I’ll post about sometime later this week. The other was a 5 a.m. appearance, if that’s the right word, on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf radio show on WBAI (99.5 FM). Which raises the question — which of us is the more fortunate?

I’ll answer that question, too. But first I should talk about the show.

It was an amiable, ambling two-hour-long conversation. As Jim warned beforehand, the time melted away quickly. I read a couple of short-shorts — which led one caller to assume that was all I wrote — reminisced about collaborating with Bill Gibson, denied ever being a cyberpunk, talked about Being Gardner Dozois, and so on and so forth. Those who’d like to hear what I had to say (but if you’re reading this blog, surely you know more than enough about me already?) can find the show posted on Hour of the Wolf‘s own blog at After two weeks, it’ll be put in Jim’s archives, which stay online for something like eight months. I should mention that Lucius Shepard was on recently, and Jim says that his interview went on beyond splendid. Lucius is one of the great writers of our time. So that might well be worth looking into.

At one point in the interview, Jim Freund asked one of those questions that I’d always assumed they trained radio talk-show people not to ask. It went something roughly like: You’re such a great writer, and so prolific, and you write both science fiction and fantasy and long and short lengths, from flash fiction to novel . . . and rather gushily on.

I could only smile and say, “Yes, I am wonderful, aren’t I?”

(Here’s a tip for any new writers who may be reading this: Readers are funny beasts. Those hearing the above statement were willing to take it under advisement. But if I’d said, “Actually, I’m not that good,” they’d have believed me. Nobody knows why this is so.)

Afterwards, Marianne and I went out into the city looking for breakfast. The day was bright and new and particularly scenic, since WBAI is located at the corner of Wall Street and South Street, right by the South Street Seaport Museum, a photo of whose docks is above. It was Marianne’s idea to come along, just because it tickled her to travel a hundred miles to New York City for breakfast. That’s the sort of person she is.
So that’s the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog. In my totally unbiased opinion, I’m the more fortunate man because I’m Marianne’s husband. Neil may well disagree with me on this one; he seems to be perfectly content with his own family. But what the heck. He can be as happy as he likes. No skin off my nose.


Three Answers

January 11, 2008

Reader Stephen Saperstein Frug has posted a message on an earlier entry here that he has blogged a review of What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? The review is mixed, and obviously I am more in sympathy with the essay I wrote than with the essay which he wishes I had written. But his opinions are honestly felt and intelligently expressed, and so I see no need to argue with them.

However, in the course of the review, he asks three questions (the first of which is phrased as a cluster of questions and the third of which is implicit) which I believe I can answer here without being discourteous. So I shall.

1. “Do I need to begin at the beginning with The Cream of the Jest? Or is Jurgen independent enough to begin with, but then I need to read The Cream of the Jest? Or can I just read the ones Swanwick says are best and get to the ‘structurally necessary components’ later?”

Read them in whatever order you like. I recommend starting with Jurgen, which is the book you are most likely to enjoy, though others are particular champions of The Silver Stallion and Figures of Earth. These three, at any rate, are the most easily appreciated. The Cream of the Jest and Something About Eve are “structurally necessary” because the former (which is extremely light on the fantasy element) introduces the Poictesme sequence and the latter concludes it. These five books should be read first, and then The High Place and The Way of Ecben. After which, the adventurous reader can go exploring. Keeping in mind that he or she should stop as soon as the books cease giving pleasure.

2. “And while Swanwick talks about the rewriting Cabell did for his collected edition, he isn’t clear about whether one needs to get the rewritten texts (are the others still around? In libraries, probably, if nothing else) or if the additions are hindrances, or too minor to matter.”

I confess that after reading through some forty-five books, plus critical materials, I lacked the ambition to perform textual comparisons. But nothing I read in any of the secondary literature suggested that the changes were so great as to compel anybody but a scholar to seek variant texts.

Those who are interested in doing so, however, will probably have to go to the Library of Congress or possibly the James Branch Cabell Library in Virginia Commonwealth University. Even at that, it may be several other libraries will have to be consulted. Even a first-rate institution like The Free Library of Philadelphia has only something like 37 volumes penned by Cabell. The demand for his work is not great, and library storage space is in high demand.

3. “Why this essay wasn’t released on the web — perhaps as a pdf — where it could have gotten a lot more readers, and quite frankly probably made Swanwick more money as an ad for his other books (or even this one) than it made in royalties, is beyond me.”

If I were convinced this was true, I’d do it. I just haven’t seen any hard research supporting this assumption. Publicity is all very well and good. But as my friend Bob Walters likes to say, “You can die of exposure.”

And that’s all. I’m entering this post a day early because tomorrow night I drive to NYC for a five a.m. appearance on Jim Freund’s “Hour of the Wolf” show on WBAI. So I’ll probably be spending much of the day napping.

Oh, and . . . Children? In the future, please remember that this blog is for the purpose of ruthlessly selling product. You should resist posting links to anything but unqualified praise, okay?


Diagramming Babel (Part 21)

January 11, 2008

Diagram 21: It’s odd how popular these things are in certain circles. In the January Locus, Russell Letson gave The Dragons of Babel a glowing review, which I’ll almost certainly be quoting here in the near future, and ended with a plug for this blog and the diagrams in particular.

We’re moving into the endgame here. From top to bottom:

Lion . . . . . . . . Lion


Madness! Fear!
Nat . . . . . . . .Will & Vixen

Relationship of Nat & Esme

Determines to follow it through
“Well,” she said

Bond over cigarettes

“He’ll never lie. He’ll just
convince you not to
believe when he is telling
the truth.”


You know my methods by now, Watson. Will has an encounter with two stone lions, one talkative and the other silent. Esme appears briefly and then Nat for some serious face time. When Z (none other than our old friend, Zorya Vechnayaya) appears, there is an essential split the nature of which is narrative surprise, and Will “determines to follow it through.” Which moment is brief in the telling but essential to the book.

The lions, for those who don’t live in NYC, sit outside the central branch of the New York Public Library.

Funny thing about the cigarettes. Everybody used to smoke in popular fiction. Open any book of a certain age, and the air is blue. Nowadays, nobody smokes at all. Not even the villains. They chomp down on raw broccoli instead, I guess. In the interest of realism, I decided to reverse that. In the course of the book, Will acquires a nicotine habit which he never does abandon.

(At one point, I was going to evoke a recurrent sacrifice-based magic. That way, Will could achieve some large magical effect by giving up smoking. Which, paradoxically enough, would give him a reason to acquire the habit again, as soon and hard as he could. Clever bit. Didn’t need it.)

The final “he’ll never lie” bit is just one of many similar snippets jotted down quickly as they occurred to me on the rest of this and all of the facing page. They’re things I’ve thought of that need to be fitted in but which aren’t structural. The vixen delivers this riff to Will, but Zorya V could have done it as well, or even (if it were set up right) Esme. And it could go earlier or later in the chapter. But Nat must depart as the Vixen enters, and Esme must appear before Nat does. The diagram is the frame and the other notes are the flesh.

Note how crisp the lines are for the parts of the chapter I’ve figured out, and how the diagram dissolves into scribbled words thereafter.