The Squalid Answers

Jill Ray writes:
The Year's Best Science Fiction was about the dragon telling will that his mother was a whore. Was she a prostitute or just slept around on his father a lot?

[The work in question, for those who haven’t read it, is "King Dragon," excerpted from the beginning of The Dragons of Babel. Which just came out in mass market paperback, incidentally.]

I don’t know how Will’s mother became pregnant. But it’s extremely unlikely she was a prostitute, and I’m guessing that she didn’t even sleep around a lot. It only takes once, remember, and there are many, many reasons why a woman might have sex with a man she’s not married to, ranging from true love to a fleeting moment of weakness. We cannot and should not judge her. The Dragon Baalthazar, who was a creature of pure evil, compounded of malice and hatred, put the worst possible interpretation on everything, chiefly in order to cause Will pain. We’ve all known people like him.

The one bright spot in the story of Will’s origin is that, given who his father later turns out to be, we can be pretty sure that rape wasn’t involved. Will’s mother would have said that there was a second bright spot – his birth. But that’s mothers for you.

Agnieszka Laskowska writes:
I am writing my master thesis about the characters who break the idea one mind-one body.

I would like to ask you few questions about the general idea of Vacuum Flowers. Would you be so kind to help me, please? In the world presented in the novel human's mind can be programmed like computers.

It emerges that all basic skills are inscribed in Rebel’s wetware. So that programme is a kind of software right? Could you explain the idea concerning the fluctuation of the human mind, its wetware program, wafers and engineers, please? Is Eucrasia Rebel's alter ego? If yes, in what way? My last question concerns the idea of a tetrad and the Comprise. Why did you come upwith the notion of creating such characters?

I look forward to your advice.

It's been a while since I wrote that book, but I'll do my best to answer your questions.

The term "wetware" was invented at MIT in order to write and think about the workings of the brain more clearly. Their reasoning was that the brain's "programming" is more rigid than software, more flexible than hardware, and not actually analogous to either. At the time, I could have given you a scientific definition but not now. I encourage you to find a reliable definition from a reliable source. (Which means, probably not the Internet.) If all else fails, you could call MIT and ask to speak to somebody in the Media Lab.

I really can't give you a close understanding of this structure of ideas because once it had served my purposes, I promptly ceased thinking about it, and have forgotten almost all of it. My main concern was what happens after human beings have seized control of what John C. Lilly called "the metaprogrammer," rather than how it could be done.

Rebel has two distinct personalities, one of which is artificial and the other home-grown. You can think of her body as being analogous to a computer and the personalities to different interfaces. Neither is privileged over the other.

The tetrad is a variant on multiple personality disorder. I had read When Rabbit Screams, written by a woman who had dozens of distinct personalities, and was happy with the arrangement. There is some suggestion that multiple personalities could be artificially induced, and I wanted to come up with a mental architecture that would be particularly advantageous to its owner. So the tetrad was based on aborigine hunting parties. The aborigines go out in groups of four and each person fills a distinct role -- war leader, peace leader, shaman, and clown -- which renders them prepared for any situation they might encounter.

The Comprise is the result of a story I plotted out but never got around to writing, in which a group of individuals sharing a hypercubed mental interface through the Web unintentionally, through their efforts to increase computing efficiency, create a hive mind which quickly absorbs every human being on Earth.

Hive or group minds are an old idea in science fiction, and one I found particularly creepy. One British reviewer pointed out that the Comprise and the collectivist society Terraforming Mars (which was based on Plutarch's life of Lycurgus) were typical examples of American fear of communism. Which, once said, I could not deny was true.

On the whole, the book was my response to a lot of thinking in the cognitive sciences at the time, particularly Minsky's "society of the mind," suggesting that the self doesn't exist and that identity is a lot more fluid than previously thought. But I'm afraid I can't give you citations for any of it.

I hope that's of some use. Good luck!

Jonathan Ravid writes:
I read somewhere that Mr. Swanwick was influenced by the writer Philip K Dick. I wanted to ask if he was influenced by his novel "Ubik", and if he did, in which of his books or stories?

It's a little difficult to answer this question. Yes, I was influenced by Philip K. Dick – along with a lot of other science fiction writers. At the time my first story was published, in 1980, it was still possible to be well read in literally every SF writer of importance to the field, and so read I've all of PKD's science fiction. Every single novel and story.

Reading that deeply in a writer surely influences one. But by the time that influence works its way through my life and experiences and other readings, it's hard to say what to credit Phil Dick with and what's the influence of (say) Sturgeon or Russ or Le Guin.

Probably the reason people identify Philip K. Dick as a specific influence is that I wrote a story titled " The Transmigration of Philip K," which was a pastiche/parody of a typical PKD story. I wrote it because I'd had a conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson, who once wrote a thesis on Dick, in which I observed that all of the criticism about the man's work overlooked how extremely (and deliberately) funny it could be. "Yes," Stan said. "But once you've said that it was funny, what more can you say on the subject?" So I wrote a story that would demonstrate his humor.

But with that one exception, the influences are so fine and subtle that they shall not be known until the arrival of the Eschaton, when all things shall be weighed and measured and all secrets are revealed.

Amy Jones writes:
Hello, I work at the Printing House for the Blind and we're currently recording The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collection for a book on tape. In it there is mention of "the con-man tales of Darger and Surplus". Is that DAR' jer or DAR' ger? We try to get out pronunciations right so a response would be greatly appreciated! Thanks a lot.

I really don't know which pronunciation is correct because my character was named after the outsider artist Henry Darger, who died in such obscurity that even that small bit of information is not known.

I personally tend to favor the hard G pronunciation, DAR' ger, however, so we might as well make that canonical.

Your attention to detail is commendable. But then, you probably already knew that.

Lionel writes:
about the iron dragons daughter- does jane go back into her own world in the end ?who exactly is the baldwynn, and why does he keep recurring in the story.and could u please explain about spiral castle, it kinda makes me think about the concept of infinity and spirals in fractalia. (book called keys to infinity, not sure by whom).

the Dragons of Babel- Is the Fata Jayne that Will meets in the party actually jane from the previous book, and is the girl that will see's in the end his daughter?

P.S, please write one more sequel, this story is sooo awesome!!!

It's been a while since I wrote the first book, so some of my answers will be a little superficial.

Yes, Jane goes back to her own (and our own) world in the end. No question about that at all.

The Baldwin is . . . well, that's kind of complicated. Think of him as an intermediary between the Goddess and Her creations. You'll note that in Christian theology God usually sends a messenger, an angel, rather than show up in person. There are good reasons for that. Moses was permanently marked by being in the presence of the Divine. (For some reason, the Medievals believed he was marked with a pair of horns; hence Michaelangelo’s statue.) The Baldwinn is recurrent because the Goddess has Her eye on Jane.

Spiral Castle comes from Celtic mythology. It's where you go after you die. If you go to Newgrange, the great passage cairn in Ireland, you'll see two large stones with spirals carved into them outside the entrance. It's believed they represent rebirth. So Spiral Castle represents everything that isn't life. It's more of a process than a place. And onto this mythic structure I mapped the current thinking in physics about the multidimensional structure of the universe. So it also represents everything that is life as well. In the world of the novel, it's where you go if you want answers. Or, in Jane's case, as close to answers as she's going to get. Think of it as God Country.

Yes, Fata Jayne in The Dragons of Babel is the same young woman as in The Iron Dragon's Daughter. As I was writing Babel, I was unsure whether both books should be set in the same world or not. When I finally decided that it would do no harm and at the same time give some readers pleasure for the books to be in a common world, I had Jane make a cameo appearance (from a period of her life when she was behaving very, very badly), as a small gift to the observant.

And the girl Will meets at the end of his novel is his daughter. No question about that at all.

I have it in the back of my mind that I'd like someday to write a third book set in the same world. But before I can do that, I have to figure out what the book would be about. Otherwise, it would only be plot and circumstance, and a terrible letdown to read. So you and I shall simply have to be patient and keep our fingers crossed.

Nobody writes:
Congratulations! I see that Amazon is now listing as co-author of R.A. Lafferty's Iron Tears, which is a good trick, as my copy just has an introduction by you.

Stranger still, the Amazon reviews seem to indicate your introduction has gone missing from the current printing. What are these people thinking?

Well, that’s a goof all right, though nowhere near as colorful a one as the edition of Poul Anderson’s Rogue Queen with the typo that rendered its title (right on the cover of the book!) as Rouge Queen.

As or what they were thinking, leaving off my intro . . . Well, Wildside Press is a print-on-demand outfit, and most POD presses measure their sales in the low dozens per title per year. I wrote the introduction for the original Edgewood Press edition, for which they paid me a one-time nominal flat fee. I forget how much, but usually it’s something like a hundred bucks. After the Edgewood edition went out of print, Wildside picked up the book from Lafferty’s literary executors, along with a number of other relatively obscure Lafferty titles. Doubtless John Betancourt, the owner of Wildside, made it clear to the executors that, since his market was completists and Lafferty fanatics, there wouldn’t be a lot of money in it for them. Doubtless the executors were chiefly interested in making his work available to those who cared most.

So, given the low numbers involved, it’s hardly surprising Wildside didn’t ask me for permission to reprint my introduction. Even an extremely nominal twenty-dollar advance would have seriously cut into the volume’s profits. And John Betancourt would never have asked me to let him run it freebies. I would have agreed to that, mind you. (Even at a hundred dollars, these introductions are money-losing labors of love.) But it would have offended his professional standards.

Raymond Macon writes:
I don't have a question, merely want to express a sentiment. I have just finished reading your essay "A Changeling Returns" that was published in Meditations on Middle Earth, and I had to express my heartfelt and deep thanks for it. I can give no greater evidence of how deeply it moved me than to say that it brought tears to my eyes. Since the appearance of the movie trilogy, Tolkien is more read and liked than ever. Nevertheless, despite the cinematic and dramatic brilliance of the films, they cannot replace the written word. Essays like yours show that the words, the book, will influence people long after the movies they have inspired have faded from public notice. This is not to denigrate the films in any way, but merely to say that the book which was their wellspring is a mightier achievement still. The sentiments expressed in your essay crystalize the effect Tolkien's work will always have on those of us who want to really think, ponder, and meditate on his achievement. I have never read any of your other works, indeed, I had never heard of you before reading your essay at home on a grey and snowy afternoon. I look forward to making your further acquaintance through your other works. If they are in any wise comparable to the essay, then I have some wonderful experiences ahead. Sincerely, Raymond Macon Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Normally I wouldn’t post a letter so full of praise for me here because . . . well, because doing so does rather tend me to make me look full of myself. But I agree so completely with you on the value and power of books, on the significance of Tolkien’s work in specific, and on the ability that literature has to touch and influence us on a very deep level, that I’m making an exception this one time. You said it all beautifully.

I should warn you, as a fellow reader, that not all my work is so warm and personal. Indeed, the adjective that seems to be applied to my writing most often is “sardonic.” I don’t see it, myself. Everything I write comes from the same heart and the same mind and the same desire to speak the simple truth. But other people seem to see some validity in the term, so you may want to be prepared.

Thanks for giving my stuff a look, though. That’s all any writer can really ask for.

mirotheas137 writes:
the entity at the end of vacflow... did it come from beyond this galactic universe? Would a being as good as that want to come to this dumpster singularity... and the true mentality of the iron(ceramic440steel)dragon... these are products of your mind? does it mean you had interface with the higher reality... radio waves/ are you afraid of falling of the table as mailer put it.

I’m pretty sure you’ve confused Vacuum Flowers with some other book. Maybe Bill Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive? As for the rest, yep, I cook up all my own ideas. It’s not as efficient as stealing them off somebody else’s plate, but it’s a lot more satisfying. But no, I’m not afraid of my own ideas. Though sometimes, as with “Radiant Doors” or “The Dead,” they can depress the hell out of me. I’m a lot happier when I get ideas for stories like ‘Triceratops Summer.”

apow23usa writes:
I have been waiting I think 2 years now for the rest of King Dragon.....from the "dragon quintet" short story collection.

I loved this short story, read the prequel short story in another collection..... but now I am waiting for the rest....when will it come out in complete form. I think it's a masterpiece.....

Believe me, I’ve been waiting every bit as long and even more anxiously. But now – at last – I can tell you that The Dragons of Babel will be coming out from Tor Books sometime in January-to-March, 2008.

To a reader this feels like a long time off, I realize, but in the publishing world that’s as fast as it gets.

Will it be a masterpiece? I sincerely hope so. That’s what we all try for, every time. But only the readers can make that judgment.

Prof. Dr. Helmut C. Jacobs of the Institut fur Romanische Sprachen und Literaturen, at the Universitat Duisburg-Essen writes:
Dear Mr. Swanwick, I want to give you information about my book just published about the "Capricho 43" by Goya and its reception in the arts. In this book is also analysed your contribution to this subject. Here you find the bibliographical information.

Thank you for telling me of this. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be a small part of the intellectual dialogue about this etching. If only my German were good enough that I could read it!

For those who are baffled by the above exchange, I should explain first that the 43rd plate of “Los Caprichos,” Goya’s very dark and satiric series of etchings, is also the most famous of the sequence. It shows a man slumped over in exhausted sleep with owls and bats stooping over him in the darkness and beneath him the words, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” It might seem that writing an entire book on a single etching out of a set of eighty is rather a stunt, like John McPhee’s volume about oranges. Not so. Starting with the publication of the portfolio (originally, the etching was to be the first plate, but what looks politically innocuous to us was so heavily freighted with meaning that the plates had to be renumbered) and then moving through the history of art (where Goya looks eerily prescient) and of the times that came after him (again, alas, all too prescient), there is a great deal of significance to be drawn from this single image. My own small contribution was The Sleep of Reason, a series of eighty linked very short stories matching the contents of Los Caprichos. I of course put Number 43 first. But then, I was never in the least danger of being imprisoned for doing so.

rewendt writes:
In "Vacuum Flowers", which I was given by the doughty organizer of a charity book sale who read the first two pages and bought it for me, I cannot understand how Wyeth could fail at least to find the kink Eucrasia put into his persona which let Rebel kidnap him at the last. What did I miss???

I’m afraid that it’s been so many years since I’ve read Vacuum Flowers that I’ve forgotten most of the details. Even worse, I’m not likely to reread it anytime soon because . . . well, the further ago an author wrote something, the less likely he is to return to it. William Gibson says he’s probably never going to read Neuromancer again, and I can certainly understand why. So I know that there’s an answer to your question (because I put in a lot of work plugging exactly that kind of logical hole), but I can only theorize as to what it is.

I think that having control of your own metaprogrammer means only that you can read/understand/rewrite your own brain, not necessarily that you will. So that the kink is the wetware equivalent of a line of code buried deep inside a program – small and unobtrusive, easily found if you go looking for it, but not the sort of thing you’d expect a friend to plant, and thus nothing you’d look for. But of course I could be wrong.

nobody writes:
any word on those two rascals, Surplus and Darger, now that 'The Dragons of Babel' is in the can? I certainly liked 'Slow Life', 'The Very Pulse of the Machine' and 'Tin Marsh' and, hmmm, there's three tough heroines in three tough environments. Any more such stories planned for Mercury or Triton?

The last I heard from them, Darger had been eaten by a dragon and Surplus forced to work as slave labor in a coal mine. I have no idea how they’re going to get out of this one, but I have faith in the lads. And then there’s the novel I hope to write . . .

As for female astronauts . . . it’s not that I have a thing for tough women, but rather that I discovered early on that if I made heroic protagonists male, I tended to identify with them so strongly that they became implausible. Flipping the gender not only overcame this but – since every woman I’ve ever known always had solid reasons for her actions – made the characters more reasonable, and thus convincing as well. That said, I have no specific plans for Mercury or Triton, but I do have a Lizzie O’Brien story I hope to tell someday.

Douglas White writes:
...not a question actually... a statement. I read a lot of science fiction, a lot of everything really, though sci-fi remains my favorite genre, and every once in a while a story or novel simply leaps out from the masses being published and demands to be noticed. “Triceratops Summer” was such a story. I think the last time a work of short fiction struck such a chord with me was George RR Martin’s “The Hedge Knight”. After reading The Year’s Best Science Fiction he 23rd Annual Collection, I gave the book to my daughter and asked her if one story immediately struck her as being exceptional, and she confirmed my thoughts. Thank you for adding another title to the list of truly remarkable science fiction short stories. You must feel proud to have your work mentioned in the same class as Zelazny’s “Home is the Hangman”, Niven’s “Inconstant Moon”.

Yes, proud and a little abashed too. It’s works like those you mentioned that bring new writers into the field and which they aspire to live up to. My younger, unpublished self wanted nothing more than to write stories that would invite such comparisons. So I thank you for saying that.

Now I shall hope that your literary judgment is sound.

Vincent writes:
Hi Michael. Just read your story "Slow Life" and wanted to tell you it is now one of my favorite stories. Found it in "The Years Best Science Fiction". I love the heroine. I know it's a slim chance, but is she in any other stories?

I agree with you about Lizzie O’Brien – she’s one of my favorite protagonists ever. Right now, there’s only the one story with her as protagonist. But someday I may write a novel for her. I’ve got the plot roughed out, and all I need is the free time to write it. So it may or may not happen. On the one hand, that’s not the only novel I’ve got roughed out, so I may never get around to it. On the other hand, it’s a novel Marianne wants to read, and I like giving my wife things she wants. We shall see.

Marianna Baer writes:
I'm writing an essay for an mfa program about character triangles, and Michael's name has come up on different websites. I'm wondering if there's anything online (an article, etc.) that discusses his theory about the importance/use of these triangles? Thanks!

Not a word. It’s simply something I came up with to help fellow writers on those rare occasions when I teach a Clarion-style workshop. But I’ll give you the gist of it here.

My notion of character triangles, which so far as I know is not related to anybody else’s, is based on an observation that John Kessel made that a story requires at least three characters. My take on this – which John says goes way beyond anything he intended or can endorse – is that this makes the triangle a useful tool when analyzing why a story-in-progress doesn’t work. Make a diagram of all the characters and who they interact with, I tell my students. Look for triangles. If there are none, then you’ve identified the problem. A protagonist needs to be pulled in two different directions, so there can be a resolution that is a synthesis of interpersonal forces. A protagonist and an antagonist (who would be represented by two dots connected by a line) don’t enact a story – they’re just playing tug-of-war. Which is no more a story than is a football game.

So a man falls in love with a woman. Either it takes or it doesn’t. No story. A woman has to choose between two men. This might be a story. Draw the triangle. There’s a line from her to Man A and another to Man B. But is there a line between the two men? What is their relationship to each other? Usually when such a story isn’t working – when it doesn’t feel like a story – it’s because the two men have no direct relationship with each other, but only interact through the woman. Ask yourself how you can make their relationship interesting. Are they best friends? Father and son? Astronauts competing for a place on the first rocket to Mars?

The insight can be extended to ask related questions. Is the relationship on one side of the triangle significantly weaker than the other two? Are there more than one triangle in the story, and if not should there be? As you can see, the utility of this is extremely dependent on the specifics of the story in question. The one universal that I insist upon is that the triangle is descriptive rather than prescriptive. We can all think of perfectly valid stories that don’t have character triangles in them. And it does no good to start with a triangle. Let your story find its natural shape. If you get stuck, diagram it out and look for the triangles. If the story doesn’t get stuck, don’t give it a second thought.

I hope that’s of some help.

Nobody writes:
"Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English Language alive today." When you wrote that cover blurb for one of Gene Wolfe's books/novels, did you expect Tor to put it on every single book he has published since then? Have you ever considered a career of writing nothing but cover blurbs? (I agree with the blurb, by the way... Wolfe is my favorite English language author. I just think it's funny that this blurb has enjoyed such a long lifespan.)

No, I wasn’t expecting it. But how pleasant for me that it should turn out so! The problem with trying to blurb Wolfe is that his work really is of the very top order of literary merit, and so, “This is one fantastic book! Buy it!” comes across as grudging and mean-spirited when applied to Peace or The Wizard Knight or The Fifth Head of Cerberus or . . . well, you get the idea. I wrote an appreciation of Wolfe recently for an upcoming issue of F&SF and it drove me half-mad. There are not words good enough or praise lavish enough to do the man justice.

Kenny N writes:
I read in an interview, that you were working on a book about a faerie world that turned into a Vietnam type place. What is othe title of it and when will it be coming out? Thanks.

The good news is that I finished The Dragons of Babel a week ago and sent it off to my agent. When and where it will appear is in her hands now. A good guess would be roughly a year from now. (The wheels of publishing grind slowly.) If you can’t wait, the opening chapters of the novel appeared as a stand-alone story titled “King Dragon,” which appeared in The Dragon Quintet and was reprinted in the Hartwell and Cramer edited Year’s Best Fantasy 4 (Eos), the Datlow, Link and Grant edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, (St. Martin’s Press), and the Dozois edited The Year's Best Science Fiction Twenty First Annual Collection, (also St. Martin's Press). Other excerpts, lightly rewritten to make them viable as stand-alones, were or will published in Asimov’s as “The Word That Sings the Scythe,” “An Episode of Moondust,” “Lord Weary’s Empire,” and “A Small Room in Koboldtown.”

If you’re one of those rare unfortunates who hasn’t the excess money to get one of the best-of-year volumes from ABE, you can still obtain one through interlibrary loan. Wonderful innovation, interlibrary loan. Who would have thought that libraries could be improved?

Bruce Chrumka writes:
Are you aware there's an Augustus Mandrell novel appearing from PointBlank? Apparently, Frank McAuliffe turned in They Shoot Presidents, Don't They? just prior to JFK's death and the ms. was obviously shelved. It's to be followed by reprints of the first three books in that series. Cheers!

Thanks, Bruce. I just took a quick Web crawl and found that the book was initially supposed to come out last year, hasn’t come out yet, and isn’t listed among PointBlank’s forthcoming books – though Of All the Bloody Cheek is.

So I wrote PointBlank asking for info, and JT Lindroos, their senior editor says: “the good news is that Of All the Bloody Cheek is ready at the printers and available within the next month or so. Once we get that out and hopefully a bit of a buzz going, we'll follow up with the unpublished book and everything else McAuliffe wrote (including the other Mandrell books, Hot Town and Bag Man). It might be 2008 or 2009 before it's all done, but I hope They Shoot Presidents to be out sometime in 2007.” Let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

And for those who came in late, Augustus Mandrell is a master of disguise and freelance assassin, and the (crime fiction) series is wildly hilarious black humor. Highly recommended.

slopez2 writes:
I’ve recently finished reading Stations of the Tide, and I have to know: what is a fantasia? I can’t find any mention of the word being used as an article of clothing anywhere. Is it some sort of corset?

The word is my own invention. (The technical term for this is “nonce word,” a term made up for the occasion, and sf and fantasy are riddled with them.) It was meant to suggest a fantastic outfit, possibly involving ostrich feathers or sequins, worn strictly for parades, shows, and the like. Something like Brazilian carnival outfits or Las Vegas showgirl costumes. Possibly revealing, but also possibly not, since it’s the fantasy element – the fabulousness – that’s important, rather than the flesh. So, yes, corsets might be involved, but in most cases probably aren’t.

Michele Sacquin writes:
A curator in the Mss section of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, I have been a fan of Lud-in-the-Mist since I bought the book, aged 17, in 1973. Later, in the eighties I began to translate it and send it to a friend of a friend working for Gallimard who did not see any interest in it. I am quite happy to discover it has been republished and I bought it at once (my own copy though carefully kept was quite battered). I still hope it can be known to the French public some day.

Bless you for doing what you can for Hope Mirrlees. As you doubtless know, she spent half of her writing life in Paris and dearly loved France. In fact, her other neglected classic was the modernist poem “Paris,” heavily influenced by the French surrealists and based on her life as an expat writer in that city. So it’s particularly ironic that neither of her two best works has yet been translated and published there.

Jim from Marshfield Wisconsin writes:
I don’t know where else to send this so I am trying this. I am new fan, having just read Bones. Fantastic! Best book I’ve read in 10 years. My question is about the ending. I have read the Niven item, and I am still wondering. Did Gertrude do it, knowing all along, that the only way they could ever be together was if she got rid of time travel itself? I hope this isn’t a stupid question, but you really hooked me. I reread the book 3 times and reread numerous chapters before I came to this conclusion. Or was the ending just the ending? I may be to used to happy endings. Hope this isn’t a bother. I am off to read Jack Faust now. Thanks for the time.

If you’d asked me this question the day I finished the novel, I could have answered it firmly and authoritatively. But the minute I’m done with a work, knowledge of it begins to fade. So I can only give you my best guess. Your interpretation is quite possible. But I think that Doctor Salley was simply trying everything she could to bring herself and Leyster together without thinking through the consequences, and I’m certain that when her older self ends up in Ultima Pangaea in the Telezoic, it’s an unfortunate and unforeseen development. And, of course, ending time travel only brings the two fated lovers together briefly. When the timelike loop dissolves...

This was an example of what my beloved wife Marianne calls, “one of your happy endings.” I should warn you that Jack Faust ends very unhappily indeed, by anybody’s standards. But my forthcoming novel, The Dragons of Babel ends happily by anybody’s standards. Even Marianne admits that.

Caleb Wilson writes:
Hello, Mr. Swanwick, the other day I read an interview you gave in which you mentioned an article you’re writing about James Branch Cabell. Funnily enough, I was, at the time, one chapter from finishing The Silver Stallion (now I’m done.) Reading the book gave me a sort of odd chill; it seemed at first like Cabell was somehow mocking the genre of heroic fantasy that didn’t actually exist when he wrote it. Now I think I see that his reach was a little bit further than just his genre, but it still amuses me how easily he threw away plot ideas that later authors would have based whole trilogies around. (Late in the book there’s a throwaway reference to “Satan’s Head of Secret Police,” for example; surely there’s a series of its own in that.)

I do have a question, somewhere in here, a point on which I could never quite satisfy myself: was the book misogynistic? There were plenty of misogynistic statements, usually coming from various (male) dolts and hypocrites, but regularly enough that I was irritated. Or maybe he was just a curmudgeon who hated everyone? I guess you’ve read many or all of his books at this point. Do any of the others shed light on the question?

(All that being said, I did find the book mostly hilarious and quite enjoyed it. The utterly elastic time-line was fun.)

I have a copy of Jurgen sitting in my stack of to-be-reads. Are there any others you recommend particularly, or will I have to wait for the article?

Normally, yes, you’d have to wait. But your reading of Cabell was so thoughtful, that I’ll make an exeption in your case.

Was Cabell a misogynist? The critic Leslie A. Fiedler wrote of his works: “The pleasure, therefore, which despite myself I continue to find in his fiction, seems to me an understandable but rather ignoble response to what are essentially the wet dreams of an eternal fraternity boy, wish-fulfillment fantasies set in a realm between dawn and sunrise, in which time is unreal and crime without consequence. In this crepuscular Neverland, all males are incredibly urbane and phallic, all women fair and delightfully stupid up to the point of marriage. After that dread event, the former become genitally inadequate, and the latter shrewish and nagging, though dedicated, for reasons never made quite clear, to nurturing and protecting their doddering mates so that they can produce romances celebrating not those wives, of course, but certain phantom girls whom they have not married and who consequently remain forever desirable and eighteen.”

Which is to say, yeah, there’s no getting around it, the stuff is lad lit. Those of us who like it can take comfort in the fact that the first part of the fantasy – the glorious and guilt-free sex, what Erica Jong called the “zipless fuck” – is pretty innocent stuff, and that we don’t buy into the second part about women being “delightfully stupid” or the third, about them inevitably turning into shrews. Still, I can’t but suspect that JBC doesn’t have many female fans.

Was he a misanthrope? Maybe. Certainly his fiction was, at least in part. It helps to remember that the recipients of his scorn – the hypocrites, censors, and philistines of his day – were very real and even more vocal than they are today. And it was exactly this aspect of his fiction that at the time made it “literary” and respected. Today, all that has fallen away and what we most appreciate him for is, as you noted, his liveliness of invention and his wild and far-reaching imagination. Which is to say that we like him best as a fantasy author.

Jurgen is probably the best book Cabell ever wrote, followed by The Silver Stallion and Figures of Earth. The other core Poictesme books The High Place, The Cream of the Jest, and Something About Eve don’t rise quite to those heights, but your enthusiasm for Cabell may carry you through them happily. Good luck. And good reading!

Dan Hoey writes:
Hello, Michael, I'm Dan Hoey. We've talked at a few Capclaves.

In the 2005 Capclave I saw your pickle trick again, and you mentioned that it had to do with Sodium, and I see the same thing on but I'm pretty sure that's wrong, except in an incidental sense that you need some sort of ionizing salt to make the water inthe pickle conductive. I'm pretty sure I've figured it out.

The pickle is basically a nonconductive, porous, refractory substrate, suffused with a water solution of an ionic salt. When you turn on the juice, the pickle heats up, especially near the electrodes. Eventually, the water boils off near one electrode or another, and the conductive path is interrupted. Then the substrate cools down and water seeps back in and restores the connection.

The light comes from arcing, when the water seeping in gets close enough to almost reconnect. The arc is especially hot, so it breaks the connection, and the water has to seep in gradually. This is why the glow appears near one electrode, and tends to stay near that electrode.

To test this hypothesis, I'd use a crucible full of sand dampened with some ionic solution. The glow might be hard to see through the sand, but will probably show to some extent--arcs are bright. If you can get some tiny glass beads, the size of sand grains, it might show better.

To rule out the sodium hypothesis, use quicklime or potash to make the water conductive. Vinegar might work, too.

I hope you can try something like this on your rig and let me know how it works out.

I'm running this letter first because it gives me a rather neat opportunity to slip in two public statements. The first is that my updates to the Squalid Truth and Unca Mike are so unconscionably late this time around because I'm deep into my next novel and it's been sucking up all the free time and thought that I can spare it. So everything else has been shunted to the back burner. I apologize sincerely for this. But it's also why I'm not going to be setting up and running any new experiments anytime soon.

(In all fairness to Michael, he is far from being the only culprit for the lateness of the updates, this one in particular. I was in so busy with my regular work that I simply didn't have time to update the site. I apologise most sincerely. - Vlatko)

That said, I think your thesis is ingenious and intriguing. But I tend to doubt it for two reasons. First, because while the pickle is glowing and emitting puffs of steam, it also emits occasional short arc discharges which make a sharp snapping sound and not yellow but blue in color. And second because often the discharge will flicker briefly to life at one pole and then shift to the other pole. Occasionally it flickers back and forth two or even three times.

The other thing I'd like to make explicit is that electric pickles are not my own discovery as some people - not you! - have mistakenly concluded. There have been several papers published in legitimate scientific journals about the phenomenon, including one in the Journal of Chemical Education in 1993 which concluded that the light emitted by the pickle was nearly identical to that emitted by sodium. (That would be a fun experiment to try to reproduce. But, jeeze, there's never a spectrophotometer around when you need one!) I learned about the phenomenon from a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania when I was researching my fantasy novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, and there's a (very) loose community of pickle electrifiers worldwide. Including an artist in New York City who covered his wall with a hundred pickle-electrifying apparatuses. He says that whenever he's feeling blue, he buys a few jars of kosher dills and lights them all up at once. Cheers him up, every time!

douglas.enzor writes: says that *The Iron Dragon's Daughter* is being published by Avon in hardcover on August 30, ISBN 0380972336. But they said it would be released in May and then delayed it. Question: is it really being released in August?

As you've probably noticed by now, The Iron Dragon's Daughter wasn't republished by Avon at the end of August. Probably what you ran across was an e-fossil announcement from years ago. At the moment, all my books are out of print, with the slight but glorious exception of The Periodic Table of Science Fiction. But hang in there. As soon as I've turned my new novel in, there'll be lots of reprints happening in its wake.

[name lost] writes:
I am still laughing about your "review" of Gibson's THE LOG OF MUSTANG SALLY.

The funny thing about that is that Bill Gibson's novel really was going to be something called The Log of the Mustang Sally before Neuromancer took off big and he went on to write Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive instead. What would it have been like? It sounds like a spaceship-based fiction. But assuredly something far more intelligent than the kind of claptrap I described in my mock review. Makes you wish you could drop into an alternate universe and pick up a copy, doesn't it?

CPStephenson writes:
Did you actually know Alice Sheldon? I just finished reading your Introduction to "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" the J. Tiptree Jr. collection.

I must admit my unfamiliarity with you as an author. I was so moved by the feeling and sensitivity of what you wrote that I Googled you and found this site.

If this is any indication of your style & manner of writing you have added a fan. When I finish the collection some of your writings will be next.

Believe me, I am looking forward to discovering your works. And, due to the Intro, I am truly eager to dive into "Her Smoke" knowing that I will love it. Thank you very much.

No, I never had the honor of meeting Ms Sheldon. Almost nobody in the field did. But my friends Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper did, and they shared their impressions with me. And yet Sheldon/Tiptree had a rare ability to make contact with her readers, so that in a very real sense many of us feel we "know" her, even while we're mystified by her life.

This is a great place to mention that James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the first biography of this brilliant and enigmatic writer, is forthcoming next summer from St. Martin's Press. It's by Julie Phillips who, by evidence of the article on Tiptree she wrote for the East Village Other some years ago, is a pretty terrific writer herself. I look forward to it with glad anticipation.

joesoap writes:
A person asked you in a column a while back about writing for comics and you said you'd keep quiet about it cause it might be an actual job offering. Was it? Or do we still have to wait for your comic debut? Sincerely J

No, what I said was that I have a story that someday I’d like to write for the comics. Nobody from the comics industry has yet approached me, waving fistfuls of money in the air (do they even do that anymore?), and I haven’t had the free time to write it up on spec. So it’ll have to wait for those hypothetical Big Bucks or else for me to run out of seriously hot ideas that I desperately want to get down on the page. Neither of which looks terribly imminent at the moment.

But I’m going to write it someday and when I do folks who read comics for intellectual pleasure will love it. Just not this month.

Blair writes:
Has anyone ever asked you for permission to make a movie out of one (or more) of your stories?

All the time. Usually, they’re sincere young film-makers who mean well and have no cash to offer. Sometimes they’re movie folk with dribbles of option money. In the first case, I usually respond politely (except when, as occasionally happens, I lose their e-mails!), explaining exactly that I can’t extend that permission because those dribbles of option money make up a small but significant fraction of my income and thus help give me the freedom to sit and write all day. In the second case, I refer them to my agent, the money dribbles in, and they proceed not to make any movies. Robert Silverberg reportedly has had dozens of novels optioned for decades, and not seen a single movie reach completion. This is just part of the strange economics of Hollywood.

It’s also one reason why I’ve never let Hollywood woo me away from writing books and stories. The pay is better there. But here everything I write gets published and read. I think it’s a better deal.

garfieldgirlce1 writes:
1. Will “The Irondragons Daughter” ever be a movie. 2. What happend to Jane at the end. I've read it 3 times and cant figure it out. One moment she's flying toward Spiral Castle, her Dragon falling apart, and the next she's there. It's very bewildering. 3. Is there a list out somewhere of all your works? I have all your books that I could find,(even two of some) you’re my favorite auther and I would like a complete colection. Thanx, a very big fan.

I’m going to answer your questions in reverse order:

3: If you click on “Bibliography” on the main page of this site, you’ll find a fairly up-to-date listing of all my work.

2: At the climax of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (folks who haven’t read it yet are advised to skip to the next question here), Jane either dies or as-good-as-dies. This makes her disposition a matter for the Goddess, and the bewildering things that happen to her are all part of her being weighed and judged to determine whether she’s worthy or unworthy, so that the Goddess can decide what to do about her. The events are bewildering because ... well, because they would be.

1. Alas, currently a movie isn’t in the works. But wouldn’t that be great? Particularly if it was made by Miyazaki. You have no idea how jealous every fantasy writer in existence was of Diana Wynne Jones when he not only made a movie of Howl’s Moving Castle, but came to her home town and rented a theater so he could give her a private showing before it was released. After which they talked for hours, through a translator, and she decided that they were “soul mates.” It’s a damn good thing for her that she’s a good writer and apparently quite a decent human being, because otherwise we’d all have to kill her.

tursiops writes:
I want to thank you as the only site which helped me to correctly spell “simulacrum.” I understood it, wanted to use it in a description of the fact that chess is like war, only more polite (depending on your opponent). Oddly, I have recently begun to write - at age 67! I was a technical illustrator and graphic artist, but that door slammed shut after I had to leave my aerospace job in an ambulance - for the seventh time! I figured God, or the Great Pumpkin was trying to tell me something. for some time, I vegged out in front of the TV, “woe is me”-ing all over the place. But you cannot keep a good type A brain down - and eventually I wrote an article for a newsletter about the illness that sidelined me, and later, both of my adult children. First, it required buying a computer - a Windows 95 which fell apart from my frustrations trying to learn how to learn the blighted thing! Then, received a totally unexpected inheritance from my father, I bought another one, just in time to save valuable pics from the old one. I wrote more articles, and they were well received. Eventually, a story line began banging on my head, demanding to be let out. See, my mother became a scuba diver, and one by one all of her female descendants did so, too. She wrote a poem about a mermaid, I wrote a sorrowing answer as she died, and from then on, the women in this family have been “Mermaids” - We are under no illusion, it is just a fun family thing. But the story persisted, and it seemed that, now that one creative venue has closed, perhaps, another had opened. I sure hope so. I don't know if what I am writing is a short story, or a novella, or an “opus” which will never see the light of day. But whatever it is, I am on page 193. All tightly typed, 12 pt, 8.5 X 11 pages. And no typos. I don't thimk. Best wishes, tursiops

p.s. I loved your answer to the guy who wanted to be crucified on a Volvo! Hell, I even understood the word! Scary.

Thanks for sharing your story. Let me wish you the best of luck with your magnum opus. May it turn out beautifully, be cherished by your family down through the generations, and find a publisher as well.

Rachel Swirsky writes:
Actually, I just wanted to send you a quick thank you - My name is Rachel Swirsky and I was in your Clarion class this summer. I was glancing at some material from previous classes, and saw how many students ended up deeply entrenched in writer's blocks. I wanted to say thank you for emphasizing to us that we shouldn't. I think it helped us all make that transition a little more easily; I don't think anyone from our class has a block. Almost everyone seems to be writing and submitting. So thanks!

Good, good, good, and good! Nothing you might have said could have made me happier. I lost nine months to writer’s block once, and I regret every hour of it.

Here’s an excerpt from my commonplace book for all the gonnabe writers out there (attendance at Clarion not necessary; only seriousness of intent). It’s from J. D. Salinger. “You’d better get busy, though, buddy. The goddam sands run out on you every time you turn around. I know what I’m talking about. You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.” It was true when Salinger wrote it and it gets truer with every passing year.

Best of luck with your fiction, Rachel! And best of luck with mine as well.

Fergus writes:
All i wanted to say was - i read your review of Gardner Dozois and i wanted to agree that his novel Strangers is a novel that i have loved since i first read it 25 years ago. I love it, I read it again and again, it sits up there with other top sci fi of that era. If you do make contact with Gardner, please thank him for writing that book.

Yeah, Strangers is an astonishing novel, isn’t it? Well worth a trip to the used book store. I passed along your compliments to Gardner, adding, “And he was stone cold sober when he wrote that.” Gardner, of course, immediately replied, “You don’t know that!” Which is as close as he can come to admitting he was pleased with your words.

Matt Koegler writes:
I gave away about 25 years worth of Issac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine recently, probably about 25% of a complete collection, to a 13 year old kid who can’t get enough Science Fiction, but as I went through them to see which ones I’d keep (because there are some stories you just don’t want to give away) and one of the criteria was, if it was written by Michael Swanwick, I keep it. Which led to rereadings of ‘Stations of the Tide’ and ‘Vacuum Flowers’ recently.
But ‘Vacuum Flowers’ got me thinking, and since I’m no writer, there’s no way this story is going to come out of me, so I’m just tossing this at you to see if it would stick because if anyone could pull this off, it would be you.
With the notable exception of Gaia at the end of Dr. Asimov’s Foundation Series, hive minds are always written or portrayed as these very rotten, domineering, hell bent for assimilation (Resistance is Futile!) organisms. Why not a hive mind with a sense of humor?
Let’s say they are turned to a hive mind by alien spores and the first person the spores land on is Morty the Practical Joker and the subsequent hiving is based on the first person who was changed.
It’s just a story I want to see so I thought to myself, well, why not tell a writer?
Thanks for allowing me to be presumptious.

That’s very generous of you. I probably won’t be using your idea because I have such an enormous backlog of my own that I’m anxious to get around to. But it’s an excellent jumping-off point for creating a story. It reminds me a little of a story by (I think) the late George Alec Effinger, in which emergent AIs seize all world power and proceed to use it capriciously, doing things like giving people new names like “Snotgobbet,” and blaming it all on computer error. A funny story by a writer with a genuine comic gift. That’s rarer in this field than you might think.

Pete Manly writes:
Thanks for your series of short stories on the periodic table. They’re short enough that I can read a few of them while I’m waiting for My Lady to get dressed and zany enough that I’ll keep reading them. I’m a writer myself, although mostly non-fiction but I do dabble in science fiction, as in the July / August issue of Analog Magazine. -Pete-

Thank you for your kind words. This is a great place to remind everybody that The Periodic Table of Science Fiction is at last available as a rather pricey hardcover from PS Publishing. And a great place as well to remind folks that literate people make a point out of picking up the occasional issue of Analog, where most of Pete’s SF appears, just to keep in touch with that corner of the field. Some of them subsequently subscribe because, if you like a magazine, there’s no better way to encourage its writers. Just hinting here.

canbefoundat writes:
What is the estimated year and season that the novel containing the story "King Dragon" will be available for purchase?

My agent keeps asking me this exact same question. I'd been hoping to finish the manuscript by the end of this year, but the last couple of chapters have come so slowly that I'm beginning to think it might take me to the end of the spring of 2006. After which, it's all up to the publisher. Usually it takes them about a year from receipt of the novel.

Vince Singleton writes:
Any plans to write a novel concerning events described in the last section of "King Dragon"? A sequel or prequel or whatever to THE IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER? If such info is available on this FANTASTIC site, excuse me, please. I could not find it...

I've been reading your work since the Ace Special edition of IN THE DRIFT. I love it all. I am, myself, an especial fan of short fiction (particularly the novella), but I love getting lost in novels such as JACK FAUST and THE IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER.

I will cease with the adoration and praise. But thanks for all the great reading--and the great reading suggestions made in this site!

As you may have gathered from the answer above, "King Dragon" is essentially the opening three chapters of my current novel-in-progress. I haven't decided yet whether it's set in the same world as The Iron Dragon's Daughter or not, but people who liked that book should enjoy this one as well.

As you may also have gathered from the above, the writing is coming slowly and painfully. But this is normal. Every single one of my previous books hit exactly this same stretch of slowly-and-painfully-ness, and each one went on to completion without any extraordinary delays. So if you'll resolve to be patient, I'll resolve to do my damnedest to write faster.

In the meantime, I've taken two further sections of the novel and made them into stand-alone stories. "The Word That Sings the Scythe" appeared in the October/November 2004 double issue of Asimov's, and "An Episode of Stardust" is shortly forthcoming from that same magazine. Out of consideration for the magazine's readers, the stories are considerably altered from what will appear in the finished work. But they should give you some idea of what Will (and his eventual mentor, Nat Whilk) are up to these days.

Hey, and speaking of reading suggestions, I've got a great one for everybody! It's A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park, fresh out in hardcover from Tor Books. It's volume one of a trilogy in which an orphan girl turns out to be a princess from another world in which Roumania is a major European power. It's a twisting, surprising story told in Park's beautifully lucid prose, that's sure to please both those who think they know what's going to happen and those of us who know exactly what a strange cookie Paul can be. As witness the fact that it turns out that our universe is contained within a book created for the sole purpose of hiding young Miranda Popescu, and that in order to flush her out, the villains steal and then burn the book. Which means I'll have to wait until volume three to find out if we all survive!

As a special bonus, the book has blurbs not only from such luminaries as Ursula K. Le Guin, John Crowley, and Yours Truly, but an inside-jacket blurb from my wife, Marianne Porter. "You do realize that Marianne's not a writer?" I asked David Hartwell, the editor, when he solicited it. He grinned and said, "Only about a hundred people are going to see the blurb and know who she is. But they'll all know that she wouldn't praise the book if she didn't mean it."

Morgan Cole writes:
At a panel discussion at the 2005 LunaCon, you mentioned a series of stories (or perhaps books) about an assassin who changes his identity in every installment, sleeps with the same woman who doesn't realize who he is, is hounded by a detective who loses a body part in each installment. Could you give me the name of this series or the author? I'd like to read it if I can. Thank you! - Morgan Cole

Those are the Augustus Mandrell stories by Frank McAuliffe. They were collected in three paperback originals, Of All the Bloody Cheek, Rather A Vicious Gentleman, and For Murder I Charge More by Ballantine Books in the late sixties and early seventies and never reprinted. There must be an interesting story there because the books have a fanatical following (myself included) and can be extremely pricey to obtain.

A great deal of the appeal of the books lies in the voice (which makes me sorry I loaned my copies to a friend some years ago and can't quote from them) - egotistical, vain, and prone to defend appalling actions on strikingly flimsy grounds. Followed closely by the black humor - amazingly grotesque things happen to Mr. Mandrell's victims, though they are not graphically described. The prose is witty, the plots are clever and, best of all, the victims are all such rotten bounders that they deserve everything that happens to them. Reading them is the quintessential guilty pleasure.

Dewey Cecil Royal, Ph.D. writes:
I am currently a postdoc in molecular biology at Rutgers University. I grew up in North Philadelphia and I attended Mast Baum High School. So little started about the people that come from these streets, these places. In one time Philadelhia was such a vibrant known community for children growing up, even though violent and poor. There was the north Philadelphia youth symphony orchestra echoes can be heard in the group Eboni Strings, and the musicians at this orchestra teach in the Philadelphia school system and do some renowned work which shows children how to play classical and jazz violin. Another member of this orchestra teachers is the music director for city high. Some of us became police men and women, others just became upstanding citizens, there were a few members of this family who ran into trouble and ended up in prison. My own story is heightened because my accomplishments were done in a wheel-chair as a quadruplegic. The discipline that this took I attribute to my musical training. This seems like not the kind of thing to tell a science writer but somehow I want to say to someone, remember these people and these places.

Those are very moving memories. I've posted your letter here so that more people can share them.

Allan writes:
I seem to recall that Mr. Swanwick wrote a story that began "He died". What is that story, and where might I find it.

That was "Foresight," originally published in the Summer 1987 issue of Interzone, and subsequently in the Winter 1989 issue of Pulphouse. It ws reprinted in Interzone: The 3rd Anthology (New English Library, 1989) and The Best of Pulphouse, (St. Martin's Press, 1991). Which probably means that the easiest way to find a copy is to buy my first collection, Gravity's Angels, available in trade paperback from the publisher, Tachyon Publications. Or wherever, as they say, fine books are sold.

The reason that the story began with that sentence is that it's set after a cataclysmic event has reversed consciousness so that everyone remembers everything that's going to happen to him or her until the instant of death but has no idea what occurred even a second ago. So, necessarily, the story is told backwards. Which pretty much puts the lie to the notion that stories should always "begin at the beginning."

I vividly remember the day I came up with that idea. I'd gotten four pages into the story when my wife came home from work and asked how my day had gone. So deeply involved was I with the logic of the story that I ignored that question and tried to answer the question she was about to ask! After several increasingly incoherent exchanges, Marianne said, "You realize that you're making no sense whatsoever?"

So I held up a finger- meaning "wait" - and ran up to my typewriter, brought down the pages, and said, "Here. Read."

Marianne did, and said, "Ahh. I understand now."

But I've entirely recovered since then. Really.

Dawn writes:
I want to know if Michael's Periodic Table of Science Fiction was ever going to be collected. I'm a chemist and I love the stories, so I would be interested in owning this collection of short-shorts, but I didn't know if there was even a glimmer of this idea happening.

Good news for both of us! The book version of The Periodic Table of Science Fiction will be published by PS Publishing, a British small press, this year as a June release. Which means it will be available sometime in May. Unfortunately, this also means it won't be the easiest book in the world to locate this side of the Atlantic, but it should be obtainable from Amazon.UK. Or, I presume, direct from the publisher. The URL is

The book has an introduction by the extremely cool Theodore Gray, co-founder of the company that distributes Mathematica, but best known for his Wooden Periodic Table Table. (Check it out at - one of the niftiest sites on the Web, if you're a science geek like me.) A photo of Theo signing the title pages for the limited edition of the book can be seen here and - guess what? - it turns out he looks a lot like me. "Separated at birth," Marianne said when she saw it. But judge for yourself.

Jim writes:
I got a couple of letters published in ANALOG about ten years ago, but now I notice ASIMOV'S doesn't even have a letter column. Yet you are not the only science fiction writer on the net answering correspondence very one-on-one indeed. What gives with Asimov's? Keeping close with the fans is one of the best things about science fiction.

I answered this in the last Unca Mike, but on reflection it seemed to me that you deserved a serious answer. So I looked into the reasons the letters column was dropped (the number of letters plummeted after Asimov died; the publishers decided to save money by cutting the number of pages; and there were a few other factors as well) and was about to write them up when Sheila Williams rendered my answer moot by reviving the letters column. And there you are.

Good luck. And if you haven't already done so, this would be a good time to express your appreciation by subscribing to the magazine.

juliasphate writes:
what was puck/rocket/rooster, peter's true name. I have misplaced my book, and i can't seem to find that name anywhere on the net.

It's Tetigistus. The name comes from the Latin acu tetigistus, meaning "You have touched it with a needle." In English, that means, roughly, "Bingo!"

Rooster claimed that it meant "needle," incidentally, but he was wrong. The Latin for needle is acu. My bad.

A.R. Yngve writes:
So: is there a point in writing ANY more time-travel stories, let alone novels? Is the theme "exhausted" now?

Keep up the good work...

-A.R. Yngve

P.S.: I just got my debut SF novel published in Sweden. You can hear me read from it here (in English):

Congratulations! May it be the first of many, and all of them successes.

In answer to your question, I employed time travel as a device simply because it was the only way I could think of to enable paleontologists to study dinosaurs in their natural habitats. Which is why I sidestepped the mechanics of it by making that information strictly classified and controlled by the government. But, yes, the time travel novel is pretty much exhausted - as witness those many that tie themselves up in paradox and predetermination - and, yes, there's a very good point to writing more such novels. Which is to come up with something new and worth saying on the topic. This sounds stunningly difficult - and it is. But no more difficult than it was for H.G. Wells to come up with the idea of a time machine in the first place.

It's easy to forget what a difficult field science fiction is to excel in. But that's exactly why the successes are so admirable.

teashare writes:
You recently wrote an update, paraphrase or homage of an A. E. Van Vogt novella. I read it and at once decided you knew where everything was at and I would read more of you; I'm presently starting BONES OF THE EARTH and loving it.

But what was that Van Vogt paraphrase all about? I'm sixty years old, so I started my sci-fi reading in the Van Vogt era. For what my opinion is worth, I think your update was, like virtually all modern sci-fi, slicker than the old stuff, but with less pulp drive (though BONES shows you've got quite enough pulp in you to satisfy me, and of course I don't MIND the slickness). But what were you aiming at?

This is going to be a disappointing answer, I'm afraid. Mostly, I wrote the story for the sheer fun of it. But also I wrote it in order to learn. As you're aware, the best of the old pulp stuff had a furious narrative drive to it that contemporary SF can't touch. I'd just read Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach for the first time and was stunned by its speed. The hero dies three times in the first two chapters! I finished the thing in an afternoon! Wow!

It seemed to me that this was no despicable accomplishment, and that I could learn something useful about writing by trying to emulate it.

So I sat down and wrote the snazziest opening line I could think of: "Eleanor Voigt had the oddest job of anyone she knew." I made the heroine an oldish woman because women of that age tend to be underestimated and because I thought it would be a hoot if one got to conquer the universe I lifted the situation from A.E. Van Vogt because I loved "Recruiting Station" and learned a lot of my craft from it. So I thought an homage to the Grand Master might be an appropriate way of acknowledging my debt.

I determined that the story would start out as slow as I could make it, and then by increments go faster and faster until it was moving as fast as it could possibly go. To acknowledge what I was up to, I scattered references throughout to the original story and I named my protagonist Voigt - which is Vogt with an "I" in it. Because I'm a postmodern writer, I almost reflexively came up with an ending which in its extreme solipsism contains a disturbing hint that the human race might in the end be supplanted by a lone woman. And I had a lot of fun with the speculations of a Depression-era woman about what a girl from the Twenty-First Century might be like and why.

That's it, basically: For the fun, to learn, and in praise of a pulp master. If I'd known it was going to win a Hugo, I would've come up with a loftier purpose. But I didn't.

fionazeng66 writes:
Who is that guy named "Archers-Wang 43" in Legions in Time? I searched on the internet and refered to encyclopaedia, yet all my efforts are proved in vain. Please tell me, and thanks!

This came in to Unca Mike, I believe, but for the life of me I can't think of anything smarmy to say in reply, so I'll answer it straight. For those who haven't read "Legions in Time," the line in question read, "Think of all the trouble caused by men like Hitler, Mussolini, Caligula, Pol Pot, Archers-Wang 43... " So the context tells you that Archers-Wang 43 is a cruel leader. The fact that the story involves time travel necessitated that at least one of those mentioned (Pol Pot) lie in the protagonist's future and our past, and that another (the entity in question) lie in our collective future. When I wrote the story, I imagined Archers-Wang 43 being an AI that was either created by or inherited the structure of a future merger of two major corporations. The name was meant to be an echo of the Archer Daniels Midland Company and Wang Laboratories but an inexact one, because I don't have any particular animus toward either of those entities.

This is an excellent example, incidentally, of the sort of detail that should be thought through when writing a science fiction story, and then not mentioned. Imagine how much it would have slowed down the plot had I stopped to explain it!

Boris Dolingo writes:
I would like to say thank you to Michael for his visit to our Aelita con. I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to make theacquaintance with this brilliant author and simply nice man.

Boris Dolingo,
the Head of the Organizing Committee
of Aelita con

It was an honor to attend Aelita and a delight to visit Yekaterinburg. I hope I'll have the chance to see it again someday. Mostly, though, I enjoyed meeting the people there. It was an experience I'd recommend to anybody!

And I really will write up an account of my visit (a longer one than the con report that recently appeared in Locus, I mean) and post it, with pictures, on my site. Just as soon as I find the free time.

Alexandalbrous writes:
In your book, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, you describe a great deal of things relative to the nature of reality and that of demensional reality inherit. Of this and the book in general I have two questions. First off, are your allusions to reality mearly garnished from some number of sources, or are they based around a particular insight you have acheived and wanted to express? And last, does the spiral castle represent an outside view of reality (in mathematical terms), or does it represent a seperate level of reality (as in progressive demensional theorum)? Either way for either question, it seems to me that conciously or subconciously you have represented a fine image of someones progressive downward spiral, and I offer my meager praise and respect for your fluid skill with words. Thank you for your time, if any.

This is a tough question, because it's been so long since I wrote that novel I've forgotten much of what I intended. I do recall that Spiral Castle represented the physical universe and that it shared the same number of dimensions as physicists currently conjecture our universe does. The image of the universe as a closed system from which nobody can escape because it folds in upon itself (as, apparently, does ours) seemed to me a good analogy for Jane's situation - stuck in a life that doesn't fit her and whose pattern she can neither comprehend nor escape. And I based her prison on the physical nature of the universe because her dilemma was basically spiritual.

But that's an answer for a different question.

pan_krator writes:
Dear Mr. Swanwick,
I bought, read and enjoyed your novel BONES OF THE EARTH (great title, by the way). My question: the novel hints at the hypothesis proposed by Larry Niven's essay on time-travel -- that time machines are self-annihilating. (i.e. they make such a mess of history that they eventually undo their own origin.)

Niven's done a lot of very good work with time travel, possibly stemming from an insight made explicit in his Svetz stories, that "time travel is fantasy." That, coupled with his exemplary logical powers, has allowed him to create some wonderful stories, including one, titled "Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation," which explicitly states that the universe will destroy any time machines before they can be built.

My friend Pete Tillman suggests Niven may have been cribbing from Hawking's Chronology Protection conjecture ( Maybe so. Niven has excellent taste in sources. It's also possible he was, like me, simply flinching away from the untidy implications of the subject. It only takes a little mental work playing about with the paradoxes to realize that time travel makes such a hash of the physical universe that it can't possibly exist. Which makes it a little ironic that physicists pretty much universally agree that, yes, it can.

So where does that leave us? Badly in need of a science fiction novel that can make sense of all this.

Allen Parmenter writes:
Mr. Swanwick, I am wondering if the science fiction and fantasy community can do anything about the crisis now taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. Would it be possible, for instance, to have a moment of silence at all conventions until the genocide stops?

I would also like you to consider circulating a petition, signed by your fellow writers calling for a U.S. intervention of some sort. There are American troops in Djibuti that could be used as a vanguard for United Nations forces.

I don't know if it's appropriate to use this contact point to draw your attention to these matters but I remember the petition you floated about against the Iraq war.

Your question fills me with shame. If there were anything I could plausibly imagine coming out of such actions, I would have no choice but to do something similar to what you suggest. Alas, at a time when the American military is so overextended in Iraq that they've extended the term of service for the Reserves beyond their original contracts, I can't imagine the U.S. voluntarily getting involved in yet another war. And American influence with the United Nations is currently on a par with our influence with "Old Europe." Negligible.

As far as I can see, then, the only thing my circulating such a petition would accomplish is to make me feel morally absolved from responsibility for the crisis. I refuse to do that.

If anybody has any good ideas for positive action, though, I'd be glad to hear them.

oelbegaw writes:
I've just read Michael Swanwick's novel Bones of the Earth, which I liked a lot, and I have a question about it. In the HarperTorch paperback of the book, on page 122, dr Richard Leyster tells Esme on a banquet that "No species could survive very long if the males and females had different reproductive strategies". This runs contrary to current belief, and therefore I'm exploring the basis of this statement on my own (mainly because I personally think there's more than a grain of truth to it), but since our department (I'm a biologist) doesn't subscribe to many of the magazines exploring these issues, I'd like to know, if possible, what sources Mr Swanwick (or should I say dr. Leyster) used to back that statement or what the explicit rationale behind it is.


Omar el Begawy

Abo Akademi University, Finland

Actually, I got that from my wife, Marianne Porter, who trained as a biologist. My chief argument with the "dueling reproductive strategies" thing is that people who hold it tend to write long, tendentious essays that boil down to nothing more than a Dorothy Parker quatrain (Hoggamus, higgamus/Men are polygamous/Higgamus, hoggamus/Women monogamous). Though with whom the men are polygamous they never specify. But you wanted a serious answer, so I asked my wife to write one. Here it is.

Marianne's Response

I switched from evolutionary biology to public health a long time ago, but here's the situation as I understand it.

Evolutionary forces operate within populations. DNA is "trying" to reproduce itself. There is no conscious volition involved of course, but the net effect is the same. A population's DNA governs what its members consume, how they move, their response to pathogens, all the aspects of biological activity, all in service of preserving and transmitting that genome, that DNA.

It matters not a whit whether the DNA is housed in a male or female body. Gender (sexual reproduction as opposed to asexual reproduction) is just one of several possible mechanisms for maximizing the likelihood that the population's DNA will be transmitted. The population DNA has a reproductive "strategy" (again, this terminology suggests a degree of volition which can be misleading) specific to itself. To suggest that the "male" DNA and the "female" DNA act separately (and as is sometimes suggested, antagonistically) is essentially the same as suggesting that my right hand and my spleen are engaged in a struggle for dominance. My hand and spleen have different functions in maintaining my existence (at least until I pass on my DNA and become superfluous) and so do parents.

Much is made of supposed differences in the "wiring" of human male and female brains. I would only offer two observations. Our understanding of brain structure is based on an extremely small sampling, for obvious practical and ethical reasons, so we don't really know what the range of variation in normal, healthy brains is. Secondly, research into the genetics and chemistry of depression suggests that a genetic tendency toward depression is modified through early childhood experience, which can lead to distinctive structural changes in the brain. We simply don't know what effect upbringing in a gender-obsessed culture has on brain structure.

So there.

Dave writes:
Have you sold the screen rights for "Stations of the Tides?" I read it in an Asimov's SciFi magazine back in '90 and I am thrilled to finally comment on how much I enjoyed it. With Unca Mike's permission, I'd like to take a crack at putting in in screen format.

This is really a question for my agents: The Martha Millard Agency, and their Hollywood affiliate, Marty Shapiro. Unfortunately, they're going to want money for any such deal. It sounds harsh, but a certain percentage of my income is derived from movie options and the people who pay for them expect absolute exclusivity.

Of course, you could always try writing the screenplay for your own private satisfaction. But then, if it came out well, you wouldn't have the right to try to sell it or publish it in any medium whatsoever, including posting it on the Web. Which is, let's be honest, a really bad deal for you. So movie options protect the adaptor as well.

In your situation (I'm presuming that money is an issue with you), I'd look for something in the public domain and then give it a contemporary spin. Like the way Jane Austen's Emma was rewritten as Clueless. Or, by analogy, the way Alfred Bester rewrote The Count of Monte Cristo as The Stars My Destination. And if it got made, all the money would go to you!

In any event, I wish you good luck. And I thank you for the compliment implicit in your wanting to adapt my novel.

Damion Waldbrunn writes:
Ever thought of writing for comics, Unca Mike? I ask because of self interest as a comic fan and publisher, but even more so as a fan of yours.

I would pay more money than I could afford to get to see a comic you'd written.

I moved this out of Unca Mike and into The Squalid Truth because it looks to be a serious question. Even if it's not, I'm going to answer it seriously.

Yes, someday, I'd like to do a six-issue story that's sort of a cross between The Books of Magic and Squalor. I've had the outline in my head for about a decade now, and once or twice I started writing bits of script, but I always got called away by the latest novel or whatnot. I don't have time to do it now, but eventually it will get written. It's an extremely cool story, and it's inherently a comic book - it just wouldn't work as unadorned prose.

Incidentally, did anybody but me read Lucius Shepard's comic book series Vermillion? It was cancelled after thirteen issues because Lucius was writing big, sprawling stuff and it just didn't fit neatly into comic book format. But then, ironically, at the end of the last issue the entire story pulled together in an ending that was both apt and open. It knocked me out. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. If somebody were to put it out in single-book format, where it wouldn't matter that it didn't have tidy wrap-up moments at the end of every issue, I bet it would sell pretty well.

crowleylynne writes:
about your friend anna quinsland.... my maiden name is quinsland ....

Then you're almost certainly related. As you probably know Quinsland, like Swanwick, is not a common name. Anna's family came from Maine, I believe. I met them at her funeral and they seemed like good people. But that's pretty much all I know about them.

Anna's death was a terrible pity, and possibly a loss to literature as well. We'll never know.

Austin Ross asks:
Could you elaborate on your thoughts that the absence of Gardner Dozois from the Asimov's helm is "very bad news for science fiction"? I'm conflicted myself by his departure, but I'm not too sure that it's all bad news - Sheila Williams seems like she can handle the job very well, and has Asimov's best interests at heart. And while the absence of Dozois is a major hit to the field, it is his promise to write more fiction that I am truly looking forward to. Admittedly I'm not an insider in the SF field, at least not at the moment, but I was intrigued by your statement about his departure being bad news.

So, I'm wondering if you could elaborate on your thoughts, because I'm not so sure it's all bad - more fiction by Mr. Dozois is always a plus.

My bad. I was feeling depressed and expressed myself imperfectly. What I should have said was, "This is bad news for science fiction writers who aren't close personal friends of Gardner's." You're right that the field could benefit from more of Gardner's fiction. And I certainly meant no disrespect for Sheila Williams, who is a very dear friend, and whose judgment I respect. Most of what Sheila buys for the magazine will, I suspect, be pretty much what Gardner would have bought, simply because they've both got a good eye for what's best in contemporary SF.

What's been lost to most of us is Gardner's astonishing ability to fix a story that needs help. There's not much doubt that he's the best story doctor in the field. My very first sale was a story that I couldn't make work until he showed me what was wrong with it, and over the years whenever I got stuck on a story I could always take it to him and he'd show me where it wanted to go. He did this for a lot of writers, and in many cases the stories went on to win major awards.

In a way, this makes things easier on me because asking Gardner's advice on a story was an implicit promise that I'd send it to Asimov's first. Now I can show him stuff and keep my market options open.

But for those who don't know Gardner personally ... for them, it kind of sucks.

Dori Herndon writes:
I have been reading Bones of the Earth. I am not finished
with it, so I don't know if this mistake is corrected later, but one
of the characters states that Darwin was an Atheist. He wasn't. He
believed, like I do, that evolution and creation go together. Is one of many website you will find this information.
Honestly there are remarkably few places where scientist or doctors
disagree with the ancient writings in the Bible.
If the mistake is is corrected later in the book then my apologies,
but I don't plan to finish the book because it is becoming less about
dinosaur and more about sex and Christian bashing.

Dori Herndon

Dear Ms Herndon:

You badly misread my book if you think that the defector (or, later, the terrorist mole) is a Christian in anything but self-regard. When he first appears, I write: "He was dressed entirely in black, and had cultivated a small, devilish goatee. All in all, he was the single most Satanic-looking individual Molly Gerhard had ever seen. She was surprised he wasn't wearing an inverted crucifix on a chain around his neck." I could hardly have been less subtle! In quick order after that, he's revealed as a pornographer, an anti-Semitic bigot, a falsifier of evidence, an accomplice to terrorists, and a world-class hypocrite. All of which is there specifically to alert the reader that the Creation terrorists are not genuine believers. There are also two explicit Christians numbered among the novel's "good guys," one of whom gives her life for her fellow scientists.

As for the fiction of Darwin being an atheist... That was not my invention. It was but one of the many, many lies, slanders, and meretricious twistings of the truth that a ten-minute Google search on "creation science" will turn up. There are exceptions, and your site may well be one of them. But by testimony of their own writings, the majority of self-styled creationists are intellectually and morally corrupt. Someday they will have to answer to their Creator for that.

I can't help you with the sex, though, because that really is there. Many people who dislike such passages find that skipping over them helps.

Bruce Chrumka writes:
Most excellent and congratulations on your latest Hugo nomination!

Any luck finding a home for the print version of 'The Sleep of Reason'?

Good to hear from you, Bruce. I have to confess that I've been so busy writing lately that I haven't actually put any time into marketing The Sleep of Reason. My bad. But there are plans afoot, and when I have positive news I'll post it here.

Henry Wessels writes:
Thanks, Mike, once again for that stellar preface, which I now see on your website. I was really looking for the Squalid Truth and enjoyed it (the squalid truth) muchly.

Here is a very squalid question --

What vast, interminable, and wholly uncommercial research project will haunt you, now that Hope Mirrlees is "dun"?

yer pal,


P.S. See you at the reading in April. Out-of-print before the first review shows up is what I'm aiming for . . .

Henry, I wish I'd heard that last sentence of yours before I wrote the intro to Another Green World. I would've fit it in, somehow. As for pointless, time-consuming, and unremunerative projects... I'm currently reading the complete works of James Branch Cabell, which as you can appreciate is a long, slow slog, in order to determine (as my tentative title puts it) "What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage." Cabell enjoyed the most illustrious career of any fantasist of the twentieth century, better than anything Tolkien enjoyed while alive. Mark Twain read him for pleasure, Alistair Crowley wrote him fan letters, Theodore Roosevelt received him at the White House, and Sinclair Lewis mentioned him in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Then Cabell drove the great ship of his reputation straight and unerringly into the rocks. Leaving him in his old age perilously close to forgotten.

There's no money in the essay but, oh man, what a story!

Brian asks: I was assigned a report for school to pick an author and write about them. I picked you as my author, for the great sci-fi books you wrote, especially "The Iron Dragons Daughter". Anyway, I was wondering if you would give me some information that I wont be able to find anywhere else, like about your childhood and your past. I would really appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

I grew up in Winooski, Vermont. Winooski is an Indian word (Abnaki, I think, but I could be wrong) meaning "wild onions." I was an Eagle scout. I've worked as a rod man for a survey crew, assembled furniture in a factory straight out of Dickens, worked ten hours a day in the warehouse of that same factory, been yard man for a motel, typist, church secretary, information analyst, and a hundred dead-end jobs more. I have three sisters and had a kid brother, but he was killed by a drunk driver. Because his murderer was penniless, driving a borrowed car, and had already lost his license the first time he killed somebody, the State of Florida decided it wasn't worth prosecuting him.

All that's off the top of my head, and every word of it's true. But even though it all (and everything else in my life) went into The Iron Dragon's Daughter, knowing it does you no good. Because by the time it reached the page, it all had been transformed through art into something else.

Morever, once the novel is written, it takes on an independent life of its own, so that my experiences are no more important than your own. Less so. A novel is a collaboration between the reader and the text. So what's important here is what you think, what you feel, what parts of the novel you think work or don't.

Right now you're probably feeling intimidated because my life experiences have been (I sincerely hope and pray) grittier and grimmer than yours. Don't be. If you can write honestly about what you think and feel about my book, you'll be light years ahead of almost everybody else in your class.

Good luck.

Lorenzo writes: Reading between the lines you seem like a person of faith - faith in what I'm not sure - but you are obviously well aquainted with "the queen of the sciences". Without prying into matters private, to what extent does faith influence your writing?

I never know whether it's the greater lie to say I'm Catholic or to deny. I was brought up within the Church and thoroughly schooled in its precepts. In fact, as a child I seriously intended to become a priest - a Jesuit, specifically, so I could be a scientist as well. There came a day when I realized I no longer believed in Catholic dogma, and so I stopped taking the Sacraments. But as Holy Mother Church says, "Give me your children until they're ten years old, and they're mine forever." Most of my values are completely orthodox. It would be foolish for me to pretend otherwise.

Peter writes: I was amazed by your book, "Bones of the earth," it is among the best sci fi/ fantasy that I have ever read. though I am only 13 I have read a lot.

It is obvious you do a lot of research your topic, and your vocabulary is so fantastic you must read the dictionary on your free time. Now, heres my question: im trying to write a novel of my own, and figured it couldnt hurt to ask for some tips and... think you could toss a few my way? Thanks.

This came in as an "Unca Mike" question, but I've moved it over here so I can give you a straight answer. As far as advice for writing goes, nobody's ever been able to top Robert Heinlein's three laws:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must send the finished work to publishers and keep doing so until it sells.

This sounds self-evident, but only a fraction of aspirant writers manage to pass even the first hurdle.

To this I would add: Write the kind of book you would love to read. Not what your teachers tell you to write. Not what your friends tell you to write. The kind you read for pleasure. You're right about Bones of the Earth - I put two years of intensive research into it, learning the principles of paleontology and the precise specialized language used to describe them. Imagine what drudgery that would be to somebody who didn't love the science! But I had a blast.

So that's my advice. Have fun. And good luck.

Jon writes: My girlfriend and I both really loved Iron Dragon's Daughter. She read it when she was 12, so about 7 years ago and recommended it to me last year around the time we started dating. I read it and found it strangely appealing. We both have different views on the book. For example, she thinks that the world Jane was in truly existed, while I think that it was part of a world she had constructed in her head. Where she went when her mind couldn't take the real world, and got lost there. We argue constantly (friendly debates I should say) about which of these are true. My question I guess is... Does Elfland really exist or is it a world controlled and developed by the subconscious of a girl gone crazy?

Some fans,
Jon and Janelle

I have two answers for you, the first of which is, "I can't honestly answer that question" and the second of which is, "But I will anyway."

First answer first: When a story is finished and published, it leaves the author's control. So my opinion of what the unsaid parts of it mean and what happens when the characters leave the page is just that - an opinion. And if what I think happens and is meant displeases you when you hear it... well, it's just an opinion. A book is a collaboration, after all, between the writer and the reader. The book I intended is not necessarily more valid than the one you read.

That said, it was always my understanding that the world Jane found herself in was as real and valid as our own, and I would have made that explicit if I could've. But as Faerie revealed itself to me, the rules became such that I realized first, that only Jane's soul and not her body could have been stolen from our universe, and second, that when she finally won home, she would not be able to retain any physical proof that she'd ever truly been away. When I penned the last pages, I knew that there would be two equally valid interpretations of what had just happened, and I regretted that because I loathe "Lady or the Tiger?" endings. But try as I might, there just was no honest way out of it.

So, really, you're both right.

phoderia writes: First of all before I ask you I just want to say I love your book the Iron Dragon's Daughter. I have never seen any author write quite the way you do.. or come even close. Your Dialogue is very real and I can tell you do your research, very few authors use the word "Pillywiggin" ... I was rather surprised to see it. I study a lot of mythologies and folklore.. its all very interesting to me.

Anyways I was wondering Michael if you had gotten some of your research from Pierre Dubois ..he uses a lot of the same terms you do in that book. Also I was wondering have you ever considered making a video game out of the enviroment "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" is set in ? I think it would make an interesting enviroment for an massively multiplayer online role playing game. I'm big into roleplaying games and would love to see your work made into something that appeals to an even bigger audience.

I'd also like to see a series made out of "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" (unless there is one and I'm just not finding it ..I had a hell of a time just trying to find a copy of the Iron Dragon's daughter itself).

Anyways don't want to take up too much of your time. I love your work and I look forward to reading more.

Okay, this is going to take some time, because there's a lot of ground to cover. To begin with, phoderia wrote this question sometime in June and may well have given up on ever getting an answer. The truth is that I lost the email. This happens to me a lot. My wife has a theory that you get only so much organization in your life and that you can't increase it, you can only decide where it will go. I write some pretty complicated novels. You wouldn't want to see my desk. But this is a good opportunity to apologize to everyone who's ever asked me a reasonable question and not gotten a reply. Now you know why.

As to specific questions. Starting in the middle, there are no plans afoot to make The Iron Dragon's Daughter into a video game, RPG, or any other sort of game whatsoever. Which is a pity, because it would make me a hero to my son's friends. But there you are. Maybe when Sean is a gaming tycoon he'll toss some business my way.

I haven't read any Pierre Dubois, but a quick Google search reveals that he's the author of The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries, which looks to be a synoptic overview of European fairy lore. So it's no surprise that he and I have a lot of overlap, because over the course of my life I've spent an enormous amount of time haunting the back reaches of libraries, trolling through the works of early folklorists, Victorian vicars, minor poets, and the like. Which is almost certainly where he got his info. Back in the less frequented stacks is where you'll find Percival Lowell's books on Mars, the Ocean of Story, Icelandic sagas and Eddas, the Kalevala, any number of eccentric visions that will serve as ornaments to the well-educated mind. I'd recommend an expedition there to any intelligent reader. Dubois, though, sounds interesting. I've ordered a copy of his book from ABE. It can go on my desk with my other fairy encyclopedias.

As for turning The Iron Dragon's Daughter into a series, though ... I've got a philosophical grudge against most series novels. It seems to me that the primary responsibility of a novel is to end - to reach a conclusion. Too many series novels seem to me to be in active evasion of that happy state, and the ultimate result of that has to be that someday their authors will die (peacefully and of old age, let us hope) and their stories will be left unfinished, as the late Roger Zelazny's Amber series was. Which seriously hurts their chances of being in print a hundred years from now.

Also, since I put everything I have into each novel as I write it, the characters tend not to be in any kind of shape for a sequel by the time I'm done with them. Just as a thought experiment, let's imagine that a year or two after the events of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Jane Alderberry wakes up to find herself once again in the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works. Can you imagine a crueler, more nihilistic thing to do to Jane? I owe her more than that.

All of which makes it kind of embarrassing to admit that I'm currently writing what might be interpreted as a sequel to that book. It doesn't feature any of the characters or places from Daughter, but the dragons are identical. So perhaps it's the same world, perhaps not. If it is the same world, though, it takes place on a different continent entirely. It'll take me a year or so to finish the novel and then another year for the publisher to turn it into paper. But in the meantime, the opening section has been published as "King Dragon," in an anthology titled The Dragon Quintet, edited by Marvin Kaye. Available from the Science Fiction Book Club or, for those of us who are a little strapped for cash, interlibrary loan.

And I think that covers pretty much everything. I'll shut up now.

mightymik2 writes: actually tell you...another one for the Periodic Table...110 is to be named.

Actually, that's already taken care of. I've been keeping a close eye on those final elements in the periodic table, for exactly this reason. So when it became obvious that the renaming of ununnilium (which, as you know, is just a provisional place-holder) as darmstadtium was a done deal, I bumped the plot I was going to use to a late element and wrote "Science Made Ugly" instead.

But I thank you and everybody else who cared enough to mention it. That includes the remarkable Theodore Gray who, however, notes that he won't be taking an engraving tool to his Wooden Periodic Table ( until the IUPAC has made the decision absolutely and irrevocably final. If you haven't checked out his site, I recommend it highly.

Isabeau writes: Why you called it "Trojan Horse"

I think "Trojan Horse" was the first thing of yours that I read. I went "Wow! Must remember this guy!" - and then I asked myself, "Why did he call it 'Trojan Horse'?" I knew much less about computers then, you see, & nothing I could remember about the Iliad answered my question.

Some years later I said to myself, "Maybe if I reread 'Trojan Horse' I'll understand the title now."

But I didn't, so please explain.

From the Webopedia entry for Trojan horse: "A destructive program that masquerades as a benign application. Unlike viruses, Trojan horses do not replicate themselves but they can be just as destructive. One of the most insidious types of Trojan horse is a program that claims to rid your computer of viruses but instead introduces viruses onto your computer."

Because there may be people reading this who haven't encountered "Trojan Horse" yet but later will, I won't risk spoiling the story for them by discussing the title's applicability to specific parts of the plot. But with the story still fresh in your mind, the metaphor ought to be clear enough to you now.

Robert Bradbury writes: I actually don't want to ask, but to offer a comment on the Holmium entry in the Sci Fiction Periodic Table:

It is unlikely that one will ever have to worry about "self-replicating agents" being ingested in some way. No sane scientist would build such agents. They violate the Foresight Guidelines with respect to nanotech, furthermore they are inefficient from a manufacturing standpoint. See my comments and more specifically arguments by Josh Hall in the paper I cite in this Nanodot post:

I realize the commentary is meant to be humorous - but given the number of people who may end up very dead if the ill-informed populus rises up against nanotech (as they have against GM food) - presentation of issues around the probability of the development and dangers of self-replicating nanotech should be taken fairly seriously.

It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that I'd have to respectfully disagree with you here, given that you're proposing an ethical standard which, taken to its logical conclusions, would eliminate not only most of my own work, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (a rebellious lunar colony drops big rocks on several major world cities), Neuromancer (cyberspace gives birth to hostile AIs), and Blood Music (the world as we know it is destroyed by... well, self-replicating nanotechnology). But let's see if I can explain my side of this thing without sounding shrill.

Your argument, I think, is flawed on two grounds. The first is that it relies on guidelines that no sane person would violate. I used to have a clerical job in the state public health labs, so I happen to know that the very first thing lab techs are told is no mouth pipetting! Samples must always be drawn into the pipette the slow and laborious way because mouth pipetting is extremely dangerous. Yet it happens all the time, and is responsible for any number of lab techs contracting some extremely exotic diseases. Why does this happen? Because lab techs are human beings, and human beings are not sane. I think of the time a batch of us were on break when Cindy Sue walked up, wearing a lab smock with a big wet stain down the front. What's that? we asked. "I spilled a syphilis serology specimen," she replied. Well, it's a good thing it wasn't positive. "Oh, it was positive," she said. At which point we all began backing away and waving our arms and saying things like Get away from us! and What do you think those laundry chutes marked LAB SMOCKS ONLY are for?

Would any sane person have exposed me to syphilis without at least giving me a kiss and a cuddle first?

But the chief reason your well-intended suggestion won't work is that it's simply too late to keep this particular fear from the ears of the public. I usually don't write about nanotechnology, just because there are so many SF stories that use it as a substitute for magic. So I haven't done much research into it. But as a reader (and occasional teacher of new writers), I am aware that the most common plot usage of nanotech is "grey goo" - runaway nanotechnological Van Neumann machines that convert literally everything they encounter into themselves. And who first introduced this idea to the public? K. Eric Drexler, in Engines of Creation. How do I know this? I read it in the newspaper articles discussing his book.

I am not personally anti-nanotech. Drexler's grey goo idea is alarming, but I take comfort from something my friend Gregory Frost told me, back when I was designing the briefcase in Stations of the Tide. Greg had looked into the matter and said that for the foreseeable future nanodevices were going to be delicate little bastards that would do their work in sterile, sealed stainless steel tanks. Much like bioreactors and similar devices in clinical labs today. Lab accidents happen, of course. But they rarely threaten people outside the lab.

A lot of people mistake science fiction for the propaganda arm of science at large. That's not one of its functions. Rather, it serves as a virtual laboratory where ideas can be examined, tested, and challenged. The big advantage to you here is that when somebody cites one of our stories, you can say, "Oh, well, that's just science fiction! In the real world..." Meanwhile, if the grey goo and self-replicating organisms plot cards keep turning up and up and up (as they do), this notifies you that the concern is out there, and that you may want to address it. SF writers don't create these concerns, you know. We pick them up out of the culture.

So I guess what I'm saying here is, don't shoot the messenger. I may not be on your side (I'm on the side of literature), but I'm not working against you either. If the public is ill-informed it's not because a notorious teller-of-lies wrote a humorous short-short based on the casual comment of a nanotechnologist a few years ago that he'd probably inhaled a few thousand of the nano-cogs he'd invented and that they were probably still lodged in his lungs. Which comment I read in the newspaper. I can't be the only reader who thought that was sloppy lab technique.

Michael asks: What will you do when you reach element 118, the discovery of which was retracted. I am asking you in your writing advice column as I am writing salacious limericks about the periodic table of the elements, one a day, and expect to reach 118 ahead of you. Before you exclaim that my work is an obvious rip-off of the Periodic Table of Haiku (currently not working), I would like to point out that it is a tribute to the noted late chemist and limericist, Isaac Asimov.

You know it's a very strange world when a note like this comes in and you can't decide if it belongs here or in the Unca Mike column. Well, wherever it belongs, I'd like to thank you for drawing my attention to the Periodic Table of Haiku. A very nifty site indeed. I wish I'd discovered it before finishing up my own sequence.

As for how it all winds up... Back when I lived in Virginia, there was a movie reviewer for the paper informally known as the Richmond Times-Disgrace who would synopsize a movie, including its ending, and then judge it by whether it surprised her or not. If she'd been around when Psycho came out, she'd've written, "I would never have guessed that Norman Bates was dressing up as his own dead mother and..." I won't do that to you.

Steve Taylor asks: Mike sez: "Foundation has just accepted 'Hope-in-the-Mist,' a biographical profile of fantasist Hope Mirrlees..."

Did this receive publication in any other form? I'd like to read it.

Yes, it's being published in translation as an afterword to the first German edition of Lud-in-the-Mist. But that's not what you really want to know. What you meant to ask was: How can I read this for free? Well, given that Foundation expects a reasonable length of time of English-language exclusivity and that there's a small-press publisher interested in publishing it as a chapbook (slightly expanded, so I can include new information I've since uncovered), you can't expect to find it on the Web anytime soon. What you can do is wait a while, and then employ two of the most beautiful words in the English language - "interlibrary loan." You local librarian can explain how this works, but it essentially makes the contents of all the libraries in the country available to you at absolutely no cost. What a wonderful system! When you die and go to Heaven, you won't find anything better.

Those with money can buy a subscription to Foundation or just a single copy of the magazine by going to their home Web page at Or else wait a year or two for the chapbook.

Dr. Nemo asks: What kind of sources of information on Magick did you use for Stations of the Tide?

Tough question. It's been a long time since I wrote that book, so I've forgotten a most of my sources. I do recall that Carlos Castaneda's books were a big influence, and that I specifically read up on Tantric sex-magic. Also I drew heavily on a lifetime's reading in spiritualism and the occult. But the book you're probably looking for is Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. Wilson's best known for the Illuminatus Trilogy, but this is a non-fiction work, a kind of Grand Unified Theory of the occult. He started with the premise that every strange phenomenon he'd ever heard of - telepathy, UFOs, the brownies of Findhorn, everything! - was true, and then asked, what single framework could possibly explain them all? Enormous erudition served up with wit, clarity, and a healthy dash of skepticism about his own conclusions. I remember thinking as I read it that this guy was either one of the most important thinkers of the century or completely out of his tree. I don't think he'd disagree with that analysis, either.

One minor word of caution, though. Wilson also published a book called Cosmic Trigger 2, which is a compilation of incidental writings, book reviews, and the like. It has some good moments. But it's not what you're looking for.

Apryl Fox asks: I'm a new sci fi writer and just finished writing a story that I was thinking of sending to Asimov's, but I have doubts that I'll get published.

I've never been published before and I'm only twenty-years-old too, though the story is really good & could probably win a Hugo in the short story section LOL.

How do I convince them that my story SHOULD be published, even though I'm young? I've been writing for like twelve years now, and have written over 1,000 poems, several short stories, and five novels. There have been writers who have published young, like Asimov and Bradbury (at 19 and 20), but it never said if they TOLD the magazine how old they were in their query letter, or if their parents or something knew someone in the publishing business.

What are your thoughts on this?

An editor friend of mine, who used to be in a heavy metal band, once told me he didn't understand why writers were so sensitive. "In science fiction rejection comes in the form of a polite letter declining to give you money for a story," he said. "In rock and roll rejection comes in the form of a bottle thrown at your head."

You should do the same thing the rest of us do. Send in your story with a polite cover letter saying, in essence, "Here's my story. I think it's good. I hope you like it." Unless it has some bearing on your story, there's no reason to mention your age. Knowing somebody in publishing won't help. Writing a good story will. And that's all. Save for the fact that you shouldn't refer to what you're writing as sci-fi - insiders call it science fiction or SF or sf.

That's my advice. I think it's good. And I hope you like it.

bsutton writes: Thank you very much for your contribution to Meditations on Middle Earth. I particularly enjoyed your notion of the hobbit integrity test, not to mention the analytic part. I am left with a question: can you say more about the final line of the trilogy being "the most heartbreaking line in all of modern fantasy"? I have to admit I didn't get that at all. Thank you.

Ah, but you're young, I'll hazard, and haven't lost so many things, so many people as I have. Sam returns from the Grey Havens to a loving wife and children, a cosy fire, a comfy chair, and a distinguished future. But when sits down, and his wife places his infant daughter in his lap, and he says, "I'm home," the adventure is over. Frodo is gone, along with the elves, his youth, the world as it was, and the last traces of magic. And none of it's ever coming back. It was Tolkien's particular genius that he could place so much loss within the context of as happy an ending as he could plausibly contrive.

There is a story that Tolkien would have known well that an early Christian missionary converted a pagan chieftain by comparing the soul to a bird that's flown out of the night through an open window into a banquet hall and is out to fly out through the window opposite. Briefly, it is surrounded by light, music, food, and conversation. But ahead of it lies the darkness.

Tolkien lost more than you and I can imagine. The world of his childhood was destroyed by the first world war (where he was, by a quirk of fate, the sole survivor of his company), and the British Empire by the second. Yet he was able to see beyond his own sorrow to the human need for that warm room, that bright banquet-hall. There at the end of his great work, he folded the light into the darkness, and the darkness into the light, and made of them a single thing, inseparable. As indeed they are.

Ted Kaouk writes: I just read "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" and am forever a fan of Michael Swanwick's writing as a result. Any chance the story will be expanded into a novel? Here's hoping...

You're not the first person to ask that. Marianne was obviously right on target when she suggested I try writing something with a happy ending for a change!

The short answer to your question is, "Probably not. But who knows?" The long answer is that I'm not a big fan of short fiction being expanded to novel length, because so often the virtues of the shorter work get buried in a lot of padding. But as it happens, I like Darger and Surplus quite a lot myself, and I hope to write many more stories featuring the roguish pair. As in "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport," which appeared in a recent issue of Asimov's, and a series of four interrelated short-shorts, "Smoke and Mirrors: Four Scenes from the Postutopian Future," which is forthcoming in Live Without a Net, edited by Lou Anders. And I'm halfway through "Boys and Girls, Come Out and Play," which is set in Arcadian Greece. If my hindbrain cooperates - but, again, who knows? - their adventures could go on for quite a while.

Will there ever be a Darger and Surplus novel? Perhaps. If they ever do make it all the way to Moscow, that would require a book-length adventure. But I've noticed that the lads are infinitely distractable. They head off for one nation at the end of one story and pop up in another at the beginning of the next. So they may never reach Mother Russia.

If they do, however, that won't be the end of their saga. Darger and Surplus are on a long, digressive, and unintentional journey around the world. Someday they'll have to reach the Demesne of Western Vermont and confront Surplus's past. Surplus has secrets. I have no idea what they are.

Ian Bourne writes: Hail from Barbados in the sunny Caribbean! I loved "The Man Who Met Picasso," always felt it should have been a novel... I also just read your first Darger and Surplus story, funny and surreal, cool!

It's always surprised me no team of authors (sf or not) ever decided to hold a convention here in the West Indies, especially for the summer, when it's cheaper - sigh - I can dream can't I? Or I can pile up me own damn shekels and hop off me butt and find the nearest ( e.g. - Fla.)!

Ah, well...

Actually, it's not the authors who arrange conventions, but the fans. While most writers, I suspect, would love to have an excuse to visit Barbados, very few have the excess time and energy (and it takes a lot of both!) to arrange such an event.

Is there a science fiction society in St. Michael? If so, they might want to consider starting a convention. If not, maybe you could start a society which, a few years down the line, could consider throwing a convention.

Keep in mind, though, that both these suggestions involve enormous amounts of work. So you may want to ignore them both. Also, you'd want to get a great deal of advice from people who have already done these things and know the pitfalls. Fortunately, there is no lack of fans who love to give advice.

I'm glad you liked my stories. The Darger and Surplus tale is the first in a series (my first ever) of what I hope will be many adventures.

A. asks: I read your wonderful, frivolous, but profound appreciation of R.A. Lafferty in Locus. I am , however, wondering if you would remove the mask (a very interesting mask though) and speak more directly about the past master. Would you agree with me that he is the Catholic Kafka? I mean that in many respects but in part I suggest that Lafferty, like Kafka, was a religious humorist playing practical jokes on God and everybody else. Also, many people regard Lafferty as a surrealist but I argue other wize. Lafferty was a covert believer in reason, he loved light, he opposed elite aestheticisms ( whew! big word there!), his humor is secretly very gentle and even child-like, he denies "convulsive beauty" and he would say "freedom in the service of beauty" not "beauty in the servic of freedom" . He is a counter-surrealist.

Well, "counter-surrealist" certainly fits. One of Lafferty's most telling conceits was that we use labels to refer to their opposites - that "liberals" aren't, and "conservatives" don't, and so on down the line. But quite seriously, I think that "the Catholic Kafka" is a contradiction in terms. To a believer, despair is a mortal sin and there are no tragedies. And Lafferty was a stronger - and more knowledgeable - believer than most. (There is a story that Lafferty's parish priest was unnerved by the way, during his sermons, Lafferty would sit listening with a small smile on his face, shaking his head.)

Comparisons with other writers only work when the writer being explicated was not unique. R.A. Lafferty, however, was a prodigy, inimitable, sui generis. The closest we can come to defining him is to say that Lafferty was the Catholic Lafferty.

Keith Ferrell writes: What sorts of notebooks (spiral, loose-leaf, student composition, etc.) dominate the archive only briefly explored in "Scribbledehobbledehoydenii"?

Actually, I wanted to thank you for mentioning poor old OMNI (POO) in "Growing Up In The Future." For the last seven years of the magazine's existence I was (or pretended to be) Ellen Datlow's boss. Among other things.

Ah, Omni! I really loved that magazine – and not just because it paid almost enough to keep a writer alive, if he lived in abject enough poverty. Month after month, it published some of the best stories around. Bill Gibson's "Burning Chrome," Howard Waldrop's "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll," Pat Cadigan's Deadpan Allie stories... Wow. A first-rate pop science mag too.

The Scribbledehobbledehoydenii are lined, spiral-bound 7.5" x 9.5" notebooks. Their contents are a cruel practical joke on future academics. My handwriting is awful and most notes are cryptic in the extreme (one page of my current one reads only "birds on fire" "a coffee church" "Memento M" and "eTower 333cs"). On the plus side, some of the better ones have lots of interesting things pasted into them: street stickers, holograms, collages (some of them cut from old Omnis, come to think), in one case even a pop-up Caribbean resort scene, complete with palm trees and thatched huts. So my hypothetical abused researcher will have the occasional spot of comic relief, at least.

rce0408 writes: what a disgusting slur at the bottom of p.84 regarding the "Jew-dominated secular film industry.I can only conclude that you are another anti-semite asshole.

I didn't say that. A fictional anti-Semitic jerk who was easily the most repulsive character in my novel, Bones of the Earth, said that. If you can't understand the distinction, you have no business reading fiction. Go away, and stop bothering decent people with your filthy little mind.

Anonymous writes: Hey, people claim you are not a cyberpunk. But you wrote that story with William Gibson. So, come clean. Are you or are you not a cyberpunk?

Hah! No, I was never a cyberpunk, though I came damned close. There were, I realize in retrospect, a couple of moments when I might have been slipped into the movement (they were originally sorta-kinda favorably disposed toward me) if I'd said the right things and not hung with the wrong people.

Nobody's noticed this, but when I wrote "A User's Guide to the Postmoderns," I implicitly placed myself midway between the cyberpunks and the humanists. Both groups displayed tendencies I saw in my own work, so I defined them as being to the right and the left of me. If you could synthesize everybody mentioned into a single writer, that writer would be me.

However, in the essay there's a quote from "Vincent Omniaveritas" (Bruce Sterling) that, "If these heirs-designate were dropped into a strong magnetic field, Gibson, Shiner, Sterling, Cadigan, and Bear would immediately drift to one pole ... Robinson, Kessel, Kelly, Murphy, and Willis would take the other." The ellipsis was mine, and the word I left out was "Swanwick." So at an early stage, before most people had even heard of them, Chairman Bruce had defined me out of the cyberpunks and, indeed, suspected me of being not only of the opposition party but its ringleader.

But, in fact, the distinction is entirely artificial. Sterling's work has more in common with John Kessel's or Jim Kelly's than it does with Lew Shiner's, and Stan Robinson's work has more in common with Bill Gibson's than it does with Connie Willis's. There was an impressive generational grouping of new writers hitting the field at the same time, and they properly belonged together. But if you're running a "movement," you need enemies, and those enemies have to be talented, so...

Anyway, that's my take on it. I recognize that there are entire books that state otherwise.

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