Friday, September 22, 2017

Putting Your Best Foot Forward


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Here's a story with the names rubbed off, lest I unintentionally give offense. Back in the Eighties, when I was what Gardner Dozois would persist in calling "a hot new writer," for a full decade, a small press published s series of small, cheap SF paperbacks, each containing half a dozen or so stories by a writer whom I considered one of the best of my generation. I eagerly bought them all... and was invariably disappointed. Because they'd all saved their best work for an eventual hardcover collection.

Years later, I was talking to Jim Turner, the extremely valuable editor of Arkham House and later Golden Gryphon Press, about these collections, and he said, "There was no reason not to use their best. I wasn't in direct competition with those books."

I remembered this later, when Chris Logan Edwards suggested I put together a slim collection of stories for his Tigereyes Press. So I went through my uncollected works and chose the very best and because they all were written in recent years, they had an underlying unity that worked well. Chris created a beautiful book with a wonderful cover by artist Lee Moyer

A Geography of Unknown Lands placed on the ballot for the World Fantasy Award for best collection.

The moral here, I think, is obvious.


And the reason for the picture above is...

So off I went, out into the countryside, on what I would have called a "mental health day," back when I pulled down a salary.

The picture above is of a cormorant drying its wings in the sun. Cormorants work hard. Usually, I do too. But not every day.


Above: Photograph by M. C. Porter. Marianne is a much better photographer than I'll ever be.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gone Birding

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Li Bai long ago wrote a poem, in Chinese of course, that can be translated thusly:

Because water returns, though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it in wine,
Because the world can in no way conform to our desires,
Today,I will let down my hair
And go fishing.

Wise words from everybody's favorite drunken savant. So today I'm going birding. If you behave yourselves while I'm away, maybe I'll share a photograph or two.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

China in Helsinki -- Part 2

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Chinese science fiction writers, editors, and other professionals were all over Worldcon 75. I had a number of conversations with old friends and new throughout the convention. Many of which occurred during the Storycom party on Saturday night.

I met and talked with any number of writers there, including Gu Shu, whose story "Chimera," appeared last year in Clarkesworld and Bao Shu,  another Clarkesworld alumnus, whose story "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" was published last year in F&SF and reprinted in Paula Guran's The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas and Allan Kanter's The Year's Top Short Science Fiction Novels audio book. I also had the opportunity to connect with author Ruhan Zhao and to meet Feng Zhang, introduced to me as "the Chinese John Clute." Among, as they say, many others.

The conversations were good. I learned a lot about the rapidly evolving state of science fiction in China. My friend  Haihong Zhao and I discussed Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem  trilogy at some length -- books which we both admire greatly. I learned much that should prove useful to know.

And if I could share with you only one thing I learned about the Chinese SF community, what would it be? Well...

"You guys are all so supportive of each other!" an actress I know once remarked about the science fiction community in the US. "Actors aren't like that at all."

The Chinese science fiction community is like that too, and possibly more so, because contemporary science fiction is relatively new and needs all the support it can get. I had heard beforewhat a close-knit community it is. But now I could see it in action: in the way they treated each other, in how the bigger-name writers were careful to introduce the newer ones, and how everybody was careful not to hog too much of any conversation. These are good people and they're working to create an important body of literature. I couldn't help thinking the world of them.


Above: Ted Chiang, me, and Ruhan Zhao.  In the background is Bao Shu. Photograph by Haihong Zhao. Did I mention what a terrific writer Haihong is?

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Monday, September 11, 2017

China in Helsinki -- Part 1

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One of the most substantive conversations I had at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki was with award-winning author, translator, and editor Francesco Verso. He is also the founder and editor in chief of Future Fiction, an Italian imprint dedicated to publishing the best SF authors from around the world. We were talking about diversity, in part because he’s publishing an anthology of stories by Chinese SF authors in both Chinese and Italian. So, obviously, he’s in favor of diversity. “But not to be ‘politically correct,’” he said. “That’s pointless.”

I wasn’t taking notes and I’m wary of unintentionally misquoting Verso, so here’s something very similar to what I heard, which he said in an interview on The Earthian Hivemind: “…as a reader, I was tired of going to Italian bookstores and finding always (or mostly) the same kind of story, written by a middle-class, English-speaking, white-man (presumably Christian, Heterosexual and living in the US or the UK). I was missing a huge part of the representativeness of the ‘real’ world, some kind of ‘literary biodiversity’ which in other genres – as paradoxically as it might seem – is not so extreme.”

Exactly! Literary diversity is to be valued not for abstract reasons but because it enriches us. It gives us new insights, new perspectives, and most importantly new ideas. Which is, after all, what this field is all about.

This is why it was so exciting to see a large and active Chinese presence at the Worldcon. There were at least four distinct groups of which I was aware: 

There was Science Fiction World, the publisher of China’s oldest (and the world’s most-read) science fiction magazine (also called Science Fiction World), as well as a great number of SF books, both original and in translation. In addition to their core activities, they were manning a booth in the trade hall (dealers’ room) to promote the Fourth China International SF Conference, which will be held in Chengdu this November.

Then there was Douban Read, the publishing arm of a social networking service. At least two of their people were meeting with science fiction writers and editors in order to expand their presence in the SF market.

The Future Affairs Administration is or began as, if I got this right, a consortium of Beijing-area fans, dedicated to the promotion and development of Chinese science fiction. In a South China Morning Post interview with the Future Affairs Administration's founder Ji Shaoting, the paper characterized their mission as "a start-up in Beijing that wants to ‘administer the future’ by being an incubator for sci-fi talent and integrating resources through hosting seminars and connecting writers with scientists." They are currently getting into publishing in a big way.

Finally, but certainly not least, there was Storycom, which I was told exists chiefly to connect Chinese science fiction writers to the Chinese movie industry. But they are engaged in other activities as well, most notably the Shimmer Program. A partnership between the Shimmer Program and Clarkesworld has been bringing a Chinese science fiction story a month to Anglophone readers for twenty or more months. We have good reason to be grateful to them.

So there was a great deal going on. Most of which, of course, went right over my head. My connection with China is very slim. I've had some stories and novels published there, and I have Chinese friends, but to be honest, I'm a spear-carrier in this epic.

But I'll say a few words more about on this topic in Wednesday's blog.


You can read The Earthian Hivemind’s interview with Franceso Verso here.

You can read the interview with Ji Shaoting here.

And of course, you can always find the indispensable Clarkesworld here.


Above: That's me with my friend Haihong Zhao, an extremely good writer and winner of several Chinese Galaxy Awards.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Writer's Pie Safe

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I just now finished a story and placed it in the pie safe. Which is a tool almost as necessary to a writer as a pen or a level desk to place heaps of paper upon.

A literal pie safe is a piece of furniture used before refrigeration to store pies and other foodstuffs. It often has tin inserts decorated with punched holes to provide ventilation while keeping out flies and other vermin. But I, of course, am speaking metaphorically.

A metaphorical pie safe is the discipline needed to set aside a finished story for a few weeks and not think about it. The story doesn't stay in the pie safe long enough to grow stale -- just long enough for the writer to fall out of love with his or her words. Then it gets taken out again and reread. Preferably out loud.

You'd be amazed at the mistakes that leap out at you when you do that. A quick revision later, however, the story is ready to submitted to a paying market. And resubmitted again and again until it is bought or you die.

Whichever comes first.


And a word of caution...

No writing advice works for all writers. Depending on what kind you are, the pie safe might not be suitable for you. It is definitely contraindicated for writers who, given the chance, will take the opportunity to lock the story away, never to be reread, revised, or submitted to a paying market. You know who you are.


Above: A very nicely made pie safe I found at The Wood Whisperer. You can visit that page here.


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Friday, September 1, 2017

A Family Visit

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It used to be, Marianne and I had to drive three hundred miles to visit her parents. Today, alas, it takes less than a hundred.

Yesterday, Marianne and I drove to the military cemetery in Ft. Indiantown Gap to visit her father, William Christian Porter and mother Mary Ann Porter. The cemetery is beautiful and quiet and, the stones being all of a size, there is a touching democracy of death.

Death is something the military forces understand well.I've been to a lot of military funerals and they're always deeply moving.

Marianne's mother's remains were interred some while ago, though. We just came to visit and to see that the stone had been carved in accord with her wishes. As it was. It had taken some argument with the VA officials, but they finally agreed to let her have her way: If you look closely at the stone, you'll see that under her husband's name are his dates of birth and death, but under hers only the date of death.

Her age was nothing that a woman of her generation would have made public.


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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Two Stories On The Stands At One Time!

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Look what came in the mail yesterday!

The September/October issue of Asimov's Science Fiction contains my novelette "Universe Box." Which, combined with the fact that the current issue of F&SF contains my short story "Starlight Express," (as mentioned in last Thursday's blog post) means this is a pretty darned good month for me.

"Universe Box" was originally published in an edition of thirteen as part of an assemblage by Dragonstairs Press. A project which, incidentally, sold out in four minutes flat.

So what's the story about? It's about cramming as much fun as i could in ten thousand words. A boring young man is about to propose marriage to the love of his life when Trickster drops by with a cigar box containing the biggest, most valuable theft of his career. Dan Scratch shows up to make a deal. The Eternal Minion has a face-down with the Black Lama. And there are giraffe wranglers!

Also, snowflakes.

Oh, and that reminds me: Spoiler Alert. I probably should have said that sometime earlier.

You can visit the Dragonstairs Press site here. Scroll down to see photos and a short film of the box. Linger to admire the many publications that, with one or two fleeting exceptions, are no longer available for sale.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

In The Drift and Back In Print

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Look what came in the mail yesterday! Twenty-eight years after its last English-language publication, In the Drift is back in print.

My first novel was a fix-up made up of "Mummer Kiss," "Boneseeker," and "Marrow Death," with two intersticial sections. When I submitted the manuscript, the novel was titled The Drift. The publisher didn't like the title and changed it to In the Drift.

Terrible title.

When I asked why, it was explained that it sounded like a horror novel. Which was both true and fair. Unluckily, the editor charged with retitling the book had a tin ear. Even more unluckily, I couldn't think of a better title until, the following year, I received copies of the French translation, Le Baiser du Masque. I got out my French dictionary to find out what the title meant and discovered that it was Mummer Kiss.

Smek!

The perfect title for the novel had been staring me in the face all the time.

Now Dover Publications has reissued my novel, part of a line of SF disaster novels, I believe. If you're curious, you can go to their website here and look around.


And having neglected to say a word about the contents...

In the Drift is set in an alternative future about a hundred years after the Three Mile Island reactor went to full meltdown. Most of Pennsylvania is unlivable and an impoverished Philadelphia is ruled by the Mummers. Hence the grim story titles.


And just in case the word has gone out of style...

Smek!, by the way, is the sound of one's palm hitting one's forehead.


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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Starlight Express by Maurizio Manzieri

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"All of the drawbacks of being a writer are financial." I said that in a Liars Club podcast. Those are true words and I'm sticking to 'em. But the perks and advantages are manifold.

One of the best of these is getting a beautiful --and perfectly apt -- cover illustration for a novel or story. As has just happened to me. My latest story, "Starlight Express," appears in the newest issue of F&SF and look at the art that was commissioned for the cover.

The story is set in the ancient city of Roma, far in the future. Flaminio, a young nobody who works as a water carrier, happens to be present when a beautiful woman climbs down the steps from the Astrovia, the matter transmitter that once enabled human passage between star systems. Only that's impossible because the Astrovia has been broken for many thousands of years.

Here's what Maurizio Manzieri, the artist, had to work from when he painted the woman, Szette:

Where Flaminio had the ruddy complexion and coarse face of one of Martian terraformer ancestry, the woman had aristocratic features, the brown eyes and high cheekbones and wide nose of antique African blood.  

All of which you can see in Manzieri's painting. Which also establishes the setting of Rome, includes a ghostly Astrovia, and establishes Szette's possible extraterrestrial origin with a scattering of stars  and planets and the earring (jewelry plays a crucial part in the story) with the Milky Way pendant from one lobe.

You can see why I'm so happy with Manzieri's painting. But it's even better than you know, because he also painted Szette's character into her face. If you read the story and then look at the cover again, you'll see what I mean. The gist, the essence of "Starlight Express" is captured in her expression.

But if you want to know what I meant by that, you'll just have to read the story. In the September/October issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can buy it on the news stand soon.

Or you could subscribe. I do.

The magazine's website, for those of you who can take a hint,  can be found here.


And if you're a gonnabe writer...

The quotation above, and an earlier reference to the fact that Szette's gown "slid across her body with simple grace," are the totality of what I wrote about her appearance. Not a word more was needed.

And in fact, because Szette's beauty was necessary for the story, I spent more time describing her than I usually do for a character. Because, really, the reader is on your side. They're perfectly willing to do half the imagining for you.


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Friday, August 18, 2017

J. K. Klein: Some Achieve Greatness...

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In 2012, Gene Wolfe was inducted into the Chicago Hall of Literary Fame and I flew to Chicago to be a small part of that moment. The morning of the event, the late David Hartwell called me up and said, "I'm in Fred Pohl's kitchen, helping him sort through Jay Kay Klein's photos for pictures he can use to update The Way the Future Was. Wanna join us?"

Did I?!

Thus began a very pleasant several hours, a story which I will someday regale you with. But not today. Today I mention it because UC Riverside has announced that they've digitized the nearly six thousand photographs Jay Kay Klein took of the great, near-great, and perfectly obscure of science fiction fandom and prodom over the course of many decades.

But I hear you ask: Who was Jay Kay Klein?

The answer is: An inspiration to ordinary people everywhere. Jay kay was not inherently an interesting person. He wasn't a writer or a particularly articulate conversationalist. He certainly wasn't a fashion icon. He wore white shirts with slacks held up high on the waist by a thin belt. So far as I could tell (and I admit that I could be wrong), there was no particular reason to pay any attention to him. He was unimportant.

So he made himself important.

For decade after decade, he attended every convention he could, bringing along his trusty camera. Jay Kay wasn't a particularly gifted photographer. But he could take a clear shot of a human being, in focus. And he labeled every photograph with name, date, and convention.

So in J. K. Klein's photos, we have a visual history of everybody who was anybody in science fiction over many decades. You can watch the young Harlan Ellison grow old in them. You can find pix of people whom everybody but you has forgotten. All the greats of the time are present. Taken together, the photos are a treasure.

And a quintessentially ordinary man made them.

At least one person reading this feels that he or she is relentlessly ordinary and resents that fact. If that one person is you, reflect on the life of Jay Kay Klein. There's a way out for you. It doesn't have to be photography.

You can read the article about Riverside digitalizing his photos here.


And Speaking of Jay Kay Klein...

In conversation, Jay Kay was, yes, mostly boring. But that doesn't mean that he didn't have his moments. I was talking to him at the Millennial Philcon (2001) when he suddenly grew reflective and said, "I was at the first Philadelphia Worldcon fifty years ago, and I remember things about it that nobody else knows."

"Oh yeah?" I said, eager to learn. "Like what?"

"Like the fact that I was there."

And now his legacy lives on. I believe that would have made Jay Kay happy. It certainly does me.


Above:
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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Never Order A Martini in Scandinavia (Estonia Included)

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I'm in Tallinn, Estonia, and I went out to dinner and forgot to bring my camera along. So of course I saw many, many things I would share with you if I had.

But I didn't. So instead I'll share a small piece of dining advice: Never order a Martini in Scandinavia.

There's apparently some disagreement as to whether Estonia is or ought to be (these are two separate questions) part of Scandinavia. But when it comes to Martinis, it is written in rock: Do not order a Martini in Estonia.

Having made this mistake before, in Sweden, I ought to have known better. But on the menu, there was a short list of cocktails available and it included "Dry Martini." It looked safe. So I was taken in.

When the drink arrived, I took a sip and said to Marianne, "Try this."

She did and said, "That's got a lot of dry vermouth in it."

"It's nothing but dry vermouth," I replied. Which was the literal truth.

When you say, "Martini" here, people hear "Martini & Rossi" and bring it to you as an aperitif. Americans making such a big deal about the drink, of course, everyone knows that a dry Martini requires more than just dry vermouth. So they added two cocktail olives on a toothpick.

I would have snapped a photo of the "Martini," had I brought the camera. Since I didn't, I share with you my look of patient resignation upon first tasting the drink.That's it up above.


And did I mention the rain...?

Not only did I leave my camera behind, but I also neglected to take along my umbrella. It being monsoon season, it proceeded to rain. Marianne and I ate on one of those wooden platforms out on the street under oversized umbrellas.

Earlier, I had bought two spools of thread for Marianne's Dragonstairs Press Christmas chapbooks. And since we were stuck under the umbrellas for some time, I wrote one of the Christmas stories for her.

So I've gotten a good start on the Christmas season. How about you?


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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chitchat in Helsinki

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Worldcon 75. I arrived in Helsinki at 2 p.m. and by nightfall had been in conversations with so many people that if I mentioned a fraction of them, you'd think I was a name dropper.

The fact, for example, that Marianne and I were sitting at a table in the al fresco cafe outside the convention center with Shawna McCarthy and Pat Cadigan and Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn and a batch of other witty and congenial folk when Robert Silverberg stopped by to schmooze.

Or the conversation I had at the Chinese Fandom party with Ruhan Zhang and Bao Shu and my friend of ten years' standing, Haihong Zhao, about the current state of science fiction in China.

Or...

But ya know what? It's been a long, long, jet-lagged day and I'm fading fast. Hitting the sack now. Regret that. Hope your every day is as good as this one has been for me.

More to come.


Above: The drink that won a competition for best gin and tonic in Europe. Its secret? Frozen lingonberries and a sprig of rosemary. Pat Cadigan looks on in admiration.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

In Which I Explain Everything There Is To Be Explained

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I've been interviewed for Reach. The interview covers a lot of territory from what The Iron Dragon's Mother is about to how I plot, my favorite blurb, what there is to be learned from James Branch Cabell, etc., etc. Here's a fairly typical call-and-response:

REACH:  Is your writer workspace a permanent location and do you subscribe to Einstein's opinion about messy desks: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  

Can you send us an image of your writer workspace?  Do you even have one of those outdoor workshed style writer workspace or do you have the old school, extended library office?  Writer's workspaces are a kind of a popular fetish for making into a man-cave or princess-room that all wannabe writers and fans want to see what their favorite authors look like in their natural habitat.  What are your most important work tools and reference books or inspirational favorite sci-fi authors in your personal workspace?

MS: I have an extremely cluttered home office – photographer Kyle Cassidy uses it as the standard of untidiness – filled with memorabilia (a bundle of rope samples from a factory in Kolomna, a West African sword, globes of real and imaginary worlds, trophies, Swanwick-brand soup cans that Jason Van Hollander made for me, and so on), drifts of paper from dozens of projects, various tools of the trade, and of course shelf upon shelf of books – most of them double-stacked and almost all non-fiction. (Fiction and poetry are shelved elsewhere.) Marianne calls it a wizard’s den.

Basic reference works kept by the desk are a thesaurus, a standard dictionary, Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, and the Oxford English Dictionary – the condensed version that you have to use a magnifying glass to read. Close to hand are various foreign dictionaries and specialized reference books on fairies, saints, demons, and so on. Plus lots and lots of books on the sciences, religion, folklore, whatever. A pretty standard batch, really, for a writer.

I also have a “devil stone” that a Siberian shaman gave me, to unlock my powers he said. When I don’t feel like working, I hold it in my hand to remind myself of all the things and experiences my writing has brought me.


You can find the entire interview here.


Above: My favorite author photo ever. By Beth Gwinn. You can find her home page here.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!

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Long-time readers of this blog know that when I have absolutely no news to convey and yet feel obligated to post (I have been remiss in recent weeks, and am anxious to get back on schedule), I offer writing advice for new writers.

Today's advice: Simplify.

There is a story and it should be told in the absolute minimum number of words possible. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that in fiction every sentence should reveal character or advance the action. Those are words to live by.

Unsuccessful stories are full of digressions. They begin by "setting the scene" -- rip all that out. The protagonist comments on things that have nothing to do with the story and do not clarify his or her character. That goes too.

Cut.

Cut.

Cut.

Cut.

Then take a sponge and mop up as much of the blood as you can.If you've done it right, what remains will be lean, lovely, and compelling.

You're probably wondering now how to tell when you've cut too much. Don't worry about it. In all my decades of reading, I only ever ran into one published story where the author had taken out more than he should have -- and he was a very skilled writer indeed, one of the best.

That's all for today. But it's enough to keep you occupied for a long, long time.


Above: Some pretty flowers. They don't advance the action. But they do reveal something about my character.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

And In Some Distant Future...

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How do you like my headstone? That's it above.

Marianne and I went to West Laurel Hill Cemetery today and bought two plots in their "green" section. Not that we're planning on using them anytime soon. But making these arrangements is the sort of things adults do to save the next generation a lot of bother when our time comes.

The green section of the cemetery is a field of wildflowers, essentially. People are buried there in biodegradable coffins or just a linen shroud, either cremated or whole but unembalmed. Their names with dates of birth and death are carved into a low stone wall nearby. Several beehives are located nearby to pollinate the flowers and once a year some goats are brought in to crop the dead plants down to the ground. No headstones, no plastic flowers, or even jewelry allowed. Eventually, trees will grow up and there will be a small patch of woodland abutting the more conventional (and quite beautiful) cemetery grounds. And in some distant future, perhaps, a fox will dig its burrow among what once were my bones.

I like the quiet lack of fuss of that.


And on a sillier note...

Here are some shots that Marianne took of me dancing by my grave.








Above: The thing about the fox? I live in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Roxborough. It's named that because the first settlers came here in the seventeenth century, before the invention of the log cabin. So they dug caves into the banks of the Wissahickon Creek and put wooden facades over the front to house them until they could build real houses. A visitor wrote back to England that the people here built "burrows in the rocks like foxes." And the rocks-burrow name stuck.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Domani il Mondo Cambiera

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Look what arrived in the mail today!  Mondadori has published a new paperback edition of Domani il Mondo Cambiera. Which, in the original English, is my novel Stations of the Tide. Translated by Marco Pinna. Cover art by Andrea Falsetti

And that's pretty much all I can say about it. Like most Americans I am, alas, monolingual. At least I have the decency to be ashamed of this fact.


And if you're going to be in Chengdu this November...

I'll be a guest at the Fourth China (Chengdu) International SF Conference on 10th through 12th of November in Chengdu, China. Science Fiction World has its offices in Chengdu and I am proud to say that they have published many of my stories over the years. So I am particularly delighted to be returning for a third time to the home of the famous thatched hut of the poet Du Fu.

If you're going to be at the convention, be sure to say hello.


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