Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flogging the Phoenix


Have you ever wondered (those of you who don't already know) why this blog is titled Flogging Babel? It's simply because I began it as a way of promoting my then-upcoming novel The Dragons of Babel. So I was was being either self-deprecating or else merely honest about the enterprise: I was flogging the book. It didn't occur to me that the blog title would linger long after its original function was over.

Fortunately, I haven't received any angry missives from aficionados of activities involving whips and aphasia, for which I was and remain sincerely grateful.

Now I am moving into a new promotional season. Chasing the Phoenix, the second Darger & Surplus novel, comes out on August 11. So you must expect a certain amount of self-promotion on this site from time to time. That's why it was created, after all.

But I promise to employ a light touch, and to vary the mix with posts having nothing to do with needing to make enough money on my novels to retain my self-respect.

Meanwhile, the early reviews have started to come in. Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say:

Chasing the PhoenixMichael Swanwick. Tor, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8090-6Hugo-winner Swanwick (Dancing with Bears) takes his longtime rogue heroes, Surplus and Darger, to postapocalyptic China in this intriguing chronicle of adventures. Once Surplus resurrects Darger with the help of the Infallible Physician, the pair and their newfound associate, Capable Servant, ingratiate themselves with the Hidden King and lead him throughout the warring provinces in search of the Phoenix Bride, a war machine from before the AI war. Taking the names Noble Dog Warrior and the Perfect Strategist, Surplus and Darger navigate the personalities of the Hidden King’s court—the mercenary bandit Fire Orchid, who decides that Surplus is her husband; the archaeologist White Squall, a secretive specialist in forbidden technology—while attempting to keep their sterling reputations intact (at least for now) in the face of seemingly intractable situations. Swanwick deftly incorporates the literature and history of imperial China into the established post-technology world. The style may distance readers who are more used to stories of emotional development, but as Darger’s schemes become more intricate, the intellectual puzzles keep interest right to the end.  

I fear this does give away a plot point -- yes, Surplus acquires a wife. Or, rather, she acquires him. Because, clever as they are, the two rogues never have been a match for the women in their lives.

The other review comes from Booklist. Their reviews are signed, so I feel I should acknowledge David Pitt. Book reviewers are, as a breed, overworked and underpaid. So they deserve at least an amiable nod from time to time. Here's what he wrote:

 Chasing the PhoenixSwanwick, Michael (Author)
Aug 2015. 304 p. Tor, hardcover, $26.99. (9780765380906). Tor, e-book, (9781466876064).In a future time, where technology is mostly dead (although there are tantalizing hints of the techno- society that once existed), a genetically modified dog, who walks and thinks like a man, turns up in a Chinese city, carrying the corpse of his best friend (and partner in crime). He’s searching for the Infallible Physician, who, it is told, can bring his friend back to life. Surplus and Darger, Swanwick’s popular pair of con artists, return in this very entertaining novel. Once Darger has been restored to life, he and Surplus—the dog who walks like a man—hook up with a local fella who dreams of being the ruler of a new, united China. Is this a con, or is it the real thing? Except there could be someone else who is helping the wannabe ruler of China get what he wants . . . someone or something who’s a lot more dangerous than our heroes. For readers who’ve never met Surplus and Darger, this book is like a breath of fresh air, witty and imaginative and just plain goofy fun. Fans of the duo (they’ve appeared in several short stories and one previous novel, Dancing with Bears, 2011) will be lining up for the book; libraries with large SF/fantasy collections may want to stock multiple copies.
And what else can I say but that The Dog Who Walks Like a Man would make a great epithet for Surplus? Particularly if delivered in a deep, Shadow-narrator type voice.

And that's all for the moment. That wasn't too painful, now, was it? 


Monday, June 29, 2015

Butterflies of Faerie and Hell


A week ago, I cut out six watercolors of butterflies from I think it was the NYTimes Sunday Magazine, and pasted them separately in my notebook. Then, in my spare moments, I wrote a story on each one, freehand and single draft. Here are two:

The Butterflies of Faerie

The Butterflies of Faerie are luminous in the night, invisible in the day. They are the souls of those who lived and died without consequence. As above, so below. As before, so after. Unworthy even of Limbo, too guiltless for Hell, they flit about the faery fields of the afterlife, brainless but not unhappy.
""Look!" your children cry. "How lovely!" And then forget them forever.

The Butterflies of Hell

The Butterflies of Hell are burnt as black as their sins. In life, they did such things as Lepidopertera should never do. In death, they suffer forever.

The damned see them as flakes of soot. Briefly, they are less agonized than before.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Meditations on "Meditations on 'Meditations on Oysters'


It was on a bitter-cold February day that I set out on a three-block Odyssey from Seventh Street to Ninth in Center City Philadelphia. To explain how this came about, I must first write a few words about Dragonstairs Press.

Dragonstairs Press is not, as some have assumed, my vanity imprint. The truth is a bit more complex than that. Dragonstairs is wholly owned and operated by Marianne Porter, my wife. The chapbooks she assembles are issued in limited editions at affordable prices and consequently they sell out pretty fast.

As an editor, Marianne has the enviable advantage of having an in-house writer -- and one who needs only to be paid with kindness and breakfasts. Sometimes she creates chapbooks from existing materials, such as the sketches I drew while working on Chasing the Phoenix, which became the stab book, Hunting the Phoenix. Other times, she commissions a work, such as the Lizzie O'Brien story that became Tumbling.

One day, roughly a century after it was written, Marianne came upon Christopher Morley's essay, Meditations on Oysters and was charmed by it. The writing was graceful and the substance was lighter than air. Essentially, Morley took a three-block amble to lunch, jotted down a few observations about the voyage, and then went back to his office at the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger and typed it out.

Since the essay was out of both print and copyright, Marianne conceived of the possibility of reprinting it in pamphlet format. Since she had a writer at her disposal, she requested that I compose a companion essay.

Which is why the two of us were walking slowly up Sansom Street while I jotted down everything I saw in my notebook.

Now, publication day approaches for the fruits of our labor. Marianne is currently at work assembling and sewing a tĂȘte-bĂȘche (what we in the genre call Ace Doubles style) chapbook with Morley's essay on one side and my own Meditations on 'Meditations on Oysters' on the other.

That's it, up above, midway through the process of creation. Note the cultivated pearl knotted into the binding threat.

The chapbook will be issued in a numbered and autographed (by only one of the authors, obviously) edition of fifty.  It's not available yet, but when it is, you'll be able to find it on the Dragonstairs Press website, here.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

That Best-of-Year Time of Year


So far as I know, nobody has ever matched Joe Haldeman's enviable accomplishment of losing track of how many Hugos and Nebulas he has. "I know it's five of one and four of the other," he told me me some time ago. But I have no idea whether I have more Hugos or Nebulas."  (Spoiler alert: I just checked on the Inntertubes and he since won another award, bringing him up to five each.)

I have, however, achieved the semienviable state of never having any clear idea of whether I have stories in the upcoming best-of-year anthologies, and if so how many. This is the time of year they come out, so every now and then I receive a package and a pleasant surprise in the mail.

Over the past week, I've received two such anthologies: Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science
Fiction (the 32nd! all edited by him!) and Allan Kaster's audio anthology The Year's Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 7.

Both include, among very good company, my own story, "Passage of Earth."

Do I sound immodest? I think it would be false not to. It would be a slap in the face to all the new writers who are looking forward to their own first appearance in one of these anthologies to pretend I didn't glory in it. Every appearance in one of these things is a big deal to me.

Also, as I said, a pleasant surprise.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Judging Books by Their Covers


Over at SF Signal, they have a regular feature they call Mind Meld, where a number of their favorite people are asked a single provocative question. Most recently it was, in essence, what are your favorite speculative book covers and why? Interestingly enough, the consensus was that the vest covers were the sort that made you want to read exactly the sort of book they illustrated.

I approve of this kind of thing because it gives me a chance to admire some talented and hard-working artists. And I was particularly pleased that one of Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's picks was the cover for my own collection The Best of Michael Swanwick.

Lee Moyer did a terrific job, as you can see above. In addition to the virtues explicated by Zinos-Amaro, there are two lightly-hidden jokes: One is the pointer that turns the word BEST into BEAST.  And the other is that on the watch-lid opening to reveal the portrait of Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieus, is a rather heavily bearded portrait of myself.

At his point, it's traditional to say that I can take no credit for the cover. But the truth is that I can. Because while we were putting together the book, William Schafer asked if I had any suggestion for the cover artist.

My first impulse was to say I hadn't, because what the heck does a writer know about art and cover design? But then I realized that if I wound up with a bad cover, I'd have no one to blame but myself. So I suggested Lee because he'd done a strikingly beautiful cover for my earlier collection, A Geography of Unknown Lands. It came to pass and I think it's safe to say that everyone involved was more than happy with the result.

So, really, the person who has the most reason to be thankful to me for the suggestion is... me.

Thank you, Michael.

I'm very welcome.

You can find SF Signal's article here.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Night of the Salamander


One of the great pleasures of having the Mongolian Wizard series running on Tor.com is that Creative Director Irene Gallo has been commissioning Greg Manchess to illustrate them.

The above illo is for "The Night of the Salamander," the first of three new stories chronicling the adventures of Ritter and Sir Toby. That makes a total of seven stories out of a tentative twenty-one.  So I'm about one-third of the way through.

Ms Gallo also posted the complete set of Mr. Manchess's illustrations to date.  Here it is:

And not that anyone asked...

When will I be writing more? As new ideas come to me. I know the general outline of the war: who lives, who dies, which side wins, and so on. And I know which deaths will hit the reader hardest. But specific incidents? No, not really.

I really should find the time to write a few more. But I've also got a novel to write, so...


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

China Daydreaming


Not all that long ago, I was on a bamboo raft in Lijiang, chatting with other tourist-rafters -- they were Chinese, and the Chinese are very friendly people -- on the river.

Today, I'm daydreaming about it.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Looking Back at The Man Who Melted Jack Dann


Eleven years ago or so, I published a brief essay, one of a series I rather unimaginatively titled, "Brief Essays," which included the following passage:

I want to discuss a fannish word game – I don't know if it has a name – that's played with the titles of science fiction novels.

If you look at a book's spine, you'll see that despite divergent typefaces the title and author tend to run together. So that instead of THE MAN WHO MELTED by Jack Dann, the eye sees THE MAN WHO MELTED JACK DANN.  Rather than THE SHEEP LOOK UP by John Brunner, one gets THE SHEEP LOOK UP JOHN BRUNNER.  (Maybe they wanted to get together for a few drinks.)  After a while, one begins to see fugitive scraps of a story spread throughout one's bookshelf, so that THE MEN INSIDE BARRY MALZBERG end up DYING INSIDE ROBERT SILVERBERG.  (And what a long, strange trip that must have been!)  If you look through your own collection of paperbacks, you'll easily find a dozen more such.

Pretty straightforward, right?

But then, a month or three ago, on Facebook Gregory Feeley recorded that long ago he had invented the game. Since nobody else has ever claimed the honor, I can only presume this is true.  Still pretty straightforward.

Meanwhile, the game got loose in the world and people who don't read science fiction are coming up with such wonders as PARADISE LOST JOHN MILTON and (of course) THE JOY OF COOKING IRMA S. ROMBAUER.  There's at least one playlist of musical groups and their songs, SQUEEZER and BLUE JEANS being a notable example.

But today I was astonished to learn that the game has acquired a name and that it is none other than The Man Who Melted Jack Dann.  If you doubt me, you could go to Wikipedia and look it up. Which fact, combined with the possibility that my little essay may have had something to do with it,  is genuinely weird.

But at least if my old pal Jack ever meets Kevin Bacon, they'll have something to talk about.

Above: Jack Dann himself, not particularly melted. I wholeheartedly recommend his novel, incidentally. Even if you're not assembling a row of books to astonish the initiated.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

William Butler Yeats -- 150 Years and Counting


Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats, arguably the greatest poet of the Twentieth Century. (Nobody's ever found a way to quantify such things. Yeats was one of the chief forces behind the Irish Literary Revival, co-founded the Abbey Theater, coined the term "Celtic Twilight," was a member of the Golden Dawn, loved and lost, won a Nobel Prize, rehabbed a Norman keep for a house, wrote stories and plays and essays, and helped to shape the self-image of modern Ireland.

But it's his poems that made him great. He had early success with his poems, a long and productive career, and then later in life a second flowering of greatness. Most poets only get the one.

I visited Yeats' grave in Drumcliffe the first time I visited Ireland in 1982.  His stone has the single beset epitaph of any poet's grave I've seen:

               CAST A COLD EYE 
               ON LIFE, ON DEATH.
               HORSEMAN PASS BY

He wrote it himself, of course. It comes from the following poem:

Under Ben Bulben


Swear by what the Sages spoke   
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,   
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women,   
Complexion and form prove superhuman,   
That pale, long visaged company
That airs an immortality
Completeness of their passions won;   
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here's the gist of what they mean.   


Many times man lives and dies   
Between his two eternities,   
That of race and that of soul,   
And ancient Ireland knew it all.   
Whether man dies in his bed   
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear   
Is the worst man has to fear.   
Though grave-diggers' toil is long,   
Sharp their spades, their muscle strong,   
They but thrust their buried men   
Back in the human mind again.


You that Mitchel's prayer have heard   
`Send war in our time, O Lord!'   
Know that when all words are said   
And a man is fighting mad,   
Something drops from eyes long blind   
He completes his partial mind,   
For an instant stands at ease,   
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace,   
Even the wisest man grows tense   
With some sort of violence   
Before he can accomplish fate   
Know his work or choose his mate.


Poet and sculptor do the work   
Nor let the modish painter shirk   
What his great forefathers did,   
Bring the soul of man to God,   
Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:   
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,   
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.

Michael Angelo left a proof   
On the Sistine Chapel roof,   
Where but half-awakened Adam   
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam   
Till her bowels are in heat,   
Proof that there's a purpose set   
Before the secret working mind:   
Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattrocento put in paint,
On backgrounds for a God or Saint,   
Gardens where a soul's at ease;   
Where everything that meets the eye
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky   
Resemble forms that are, or seem   
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,   
And when it's vanished still declare,   
With only bed and bedstead there,   
That Heavens had opened.

                                        Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone   
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude   
Prepared a rest for the people of God,   
Palmer's phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.


Irish poets learn your trade   
Sing whatever is well made,   
Scorn the sort now growing up   
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads   
Base-born products of base beds.   
Sing the peasantry, and then   
Hard-riding country gentlemen,   
The holiness of monks, and after   
Porter-drinkers' randy laughter;   
Sing the lords and ladies gay   
That were beaten into the clay   
Through seven heroic centuries;   
Cast your mind on other days   
That we in coming days may be   
Still the indomitable Irishry.


Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,   
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,   
On limestone quarried near the spot   
By his command these words are cut:

               Cast a cold eye   
               On life, on death.   
               Horseman, pass by!

It was a cool, wet, overcast April day when I stopped by to pay my respects. Church, mountain, graves -- all were as described. The grave was almost ostentatiously modest: the engraved stone and a rectangle of gravel. I defy anyone who loves "Under Ben Bulben" not to be moved by it.

There were no flowers on Yeats's grave, so before I left I stole one from a neighboring grave and left it there.


Friday, June 12, 2015

When Marnie Was There


I went to see Studio Ghibli's latest (and perhaps last) movie the other day.  When Marnie Was There, despite its awkward title, is a lovely film and worthy of its legendary studio.

What's interesting is how I keep thinking of it as a non-genre film, when -- I'm sure I'm not giving anything away by telling you this -- it's actually a ghost story.  Perhaps it's because ghost stories are so embedded in our culture. Perhaps it's because so many people believe in ghosts and even those who don't would like to believe in them. But unless the ghost is malevolent (in which case the story or film goes straight to horror), it's difficult to think of a ghost story as fantasy.  It feels like an accepted part of our everyday worldview.

I can think of only one other fantasy sub-type that can be routinely sold and accepted as mainstream, and that's the time-travel love story.  It has to be love that breaches the walls of time and (briefly, usually) unites two people who were Meant To Be Lovers. Machinery gets in the way of romance and turns the whole thing into icky sci-fi.

So that's two.  Can anybody think of a third?

And a word to young writers...

If you're a natural fantasist who wants to write a mainstream novel, falling through time and in love is probably the way to go.  Keep in mind, though, that you stand the same chance of getting a big paycheck as you do if you stay in genre.  I've talked to any number of not-yet-famous mainstream writers who are jealous of the big advances they presume genre writers receive.

The cash is always greener on the other side of the fence.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

This Glitterati Life


Last week, I was in Laramie, Wyoming, taking a crash course in astronomy. A month ago I was wandering through China with a group of friends that included my old pals Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn.  And today?

I'm bouncing between tapping on the keyboard and downloading papers on Messier 4.

When you're a writer, there ate four constructive types of activity you engage in, three of them falling under the heading of research.  The first is wandering about, experiencing new things and learning all you can. The second is acquiring new (or, in this case, refreshing old) lore. The third is specific research for a given project.

The fourth, alas, is tapping away at the keyboard.

As a general rule, the further away you get from the actual writing, the more fun the activity is.

There is also a fifth category of activity, and that's all the business stuff: reading contracts with skepticism, cashing checks, responding to editorial queries and the like.  This is even less fun than the actual writing is, which is why editors find it easier to get writers to make revisions of their work than it is to get them to provide a social security number, so they can get paid.  Ironic, but true.

Above: my work in progress.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Keeping Raven Young


I spent all of last week in Laramie, Wyoming, taking a refresher course in astronomy. The course was called Launch Pad and was run by Michael Brotherton, with the assistance of Christian Ready, Andrea Schwortz, and Jim Verley. It was a great deal of mental work which, incidentally, gave me much insight into my less than stellar college career.

I hear you asking: why was I there?

Berndt Heinrich wrote a book titled Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds. Which I highly recommend to anyone seriously interested in ravens. One of his observations was that young ravens are endlessly curious. Put out something odd in their habitat, and they'll poke at it, push it around, try to figure it out. Some of them die as a result of this curiosity. But the survivors have stuffed their heads with odd information about the world that will last them a lifetime.

Old ravens, those who have come of breeding age, are exactly the opposite. When they see something new in their environment, they view it with active suspicion. They won't come anywhere near it. They flee anything that smacks of innovation.

Human beings are not all that different, are we?

So that's what I was doing in the University of Wyoming.  Keeping my inner raven young.

Above: There I am in front of the university's geology museum. Some things just don't change. Photo by Amy Thomson.


Monday, June 1, 2015

"Better Than Sex" Kirkus RAVES!!!

Brace yourselves, gentle readers. My brilliantly entertaining Darger & Surplus novel, Chasing the Phoenix, comes out in less than three months. Which means that, yes, I will be flogging it relentlessly.  Doing so is like voting for yourself when you're on the Nebula ballot.  Everybody does it, nobody is petty enough to say you shouldn't, and because it has no great effect on the outcome, it does no harm. So why not?

Also, it never hurts to let your editor know that you're doing your bit.

All of which is prologue to the fact that my novel has just received its first official review -- a starred review from Kirkus, no less.

The pullquotes to note are "witty, supple, artfully humorous, and vastly engaging" and "this one's just too good to miss."

I will not pretend that I am not happy about this.

The review in its entirety is:

Author: Michael Swanwick
Pages: 320
Price ( Hardcover ): $26.99
Price ( e-book ): $12.99
Publication Date: August 11, 2015
Category: Fiction
Classification: Science Fiction/Fantasy

A new entry in Swanwick's picaresque post-apocalyptic series, following Dancing with Bears (2011) and various short stories. Technological civilization collapsed long ago, the reasons for which only gradually emerge, yet Swanwick's seductive future swarms with gene-modified creatures, ancient weapons, vengeful artificial intelligences, and other contrivances that would not seem out of place in a steampunk yarn. Surplus, a genetically modified dog with the stance and intellect of a human, arrives in the Abundant Kingdom with the corpse of his friend (and fellow confidence trickster) Aubrey Darger in search of the Infallible Physician, the only agency by which Darger might be revived. They soon learn that the land's paranoid and quite possibly insane Hidden King is both ambitious to reunite the sundered kingdoms of old China and obsessed with locating his Phoenix Bride. Seeing a likely source of great wealth, our heroes attach themselves to the king's entourage, braving the skepticism of Chief Archaeological Officer White Squall (whose mission is to recover and repair ancient war machines) and Ceo Powerful Locomotive. Surplus becomes Noble Dog Warrior, while Darger declares himself to be Perfect Strategist. In turn, various persons attach themselves to the heroes, among them Capable Servant and a band of feisty horse warriors. Somehow, Surplus and Darger's intrigues and stratagems really begin to work. Or so it seems. One drawback to this otherwise witty, supple, artfully humorous, and vastly engaging yarn is the plot's broad similarity with the previous novel. Still, along with a splendid supporting cast, Swanwick offers a pair of delightful rogues whose chief flaw (like Jack Vance's celebrated Cugel the Clever, a likely inspiration) is that they're a little too crafty for their own good. Swanwick's approaching top form, and this one's just too good to miss. 

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again. This time I'm off to Launch Pad in Wyoming for a weeklong crash course in astronomy. It's been (cough) years since I took a formal astronomy course and I felt that it was time to do a little catching up. The universe is a much bigger place than it was when I was in college.

I'll do my best to keep up my blog while I'm away. But, necessarily, I can make no promises.

Behave yourselves while I'm away!