Ten Things I’m Excited About This Month

1. FLOGGING BABEL. This is the title of my new blog. Quite frankly, I never thought I’d wind up blogging, just because it’s so much work. If you don’t update two or three times a week . . . well, you lose readers fast. And as those who have been visiting Michael Swanwick Online for years (assuming there are some!) will attest, I’ve never been at my best keeping to a schedule.

Nevertheless, David Hartwell, my editor at Tor, told me that if I wanted my upcoming fantasy novel, The Dragons of Babel to do well, I had to have a blog. “And make it interesting,” he said. “There are a thousand sites out there with the first chapter of a novel and a scan of the cover. Nobody cares for that anymore. They want to see something different. The more different interesting things, the better.”

So I have my marching orders. But can I do it? There’s only one way to tell. Check it out at http://floggingbabel.blogspot.com/ I’ll be posting updates every Monday and Friday, and Wednesdays as well if I have the energy.

2. WHAT CAN BE SAVED FROM THE WRECKAGE? JAMES BRANCH CABELL IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. This will possibly be the single coolest book published this coming November. Not the most popular, or profitable, or the book of widest interest. But the coolest. And I wrote it!

Here’s the story. I started reading Cabell as a teenager, lo these many decades ago, when several of his fantasies were published in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy line, edited by Lin Carter. Early on, I conceived the ambition to read Cabell’s entire oeuvre and began collecting his works (most of which could and still can be bought quite cheaply in used book stores) in an off and on again fashion. Off and on because a lot of those books are simply not very good. A couple of years ago, got serious about the project, and with the aid of the rare book room in the University of Pennsylvania Library, managed to read everything the man had ever published, with the exception of his family genealogies. Which, however, I did glance at, to make sure there wasn’t anything clever going on there. I also read a lot of criticism and all I could find out about the man’s life. Then I wrote an 18,500-word essay (counting my extravagant footnotes) summarizing Cabell’s life and carefully weighing the value of his works.

It begins:

It is hard to imagine today the magnitude of James Branch Cabell’s fame in the early part of the last century. Cabell’s books were Mark Twain’s chief reading in the great humorist’s declining years. Theodore Roosevelt received him at the White House. The occultist Aleister Crowley harried him with fan letters. H. L. Mencken was his advocate. Sinclair Lewis, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, mentioned him as one of a number of writers who might reasonably have won it.

Yet he died as good as forgotten.

Now, I happen to think this is a very good essay, but that’s not what makes the book publication of it so extraordinary. The coolness factor derives directly from Henry Wessells, the publisher. Henry is a serious rare book man (he works for James Cummins, Bookseller in New York City, which is one of the very first places you’ll want to go shopping after winning big in the lottery), and his imprint, Temporary Culture, is issuing the book in two states. One is a trade paperback (6 x 9 inches, 64 pp.) edition of 200, very reasonably priced at fifteen dollars. It’s the limited edition hardcover that jacks up the cool quotient to eleven.

But before I should explain why, let me briefly mention the introduction and the man who wrote it. “Jurgen Down Under,” is a very graceful piece of writing by the estimable Barry Humphries, reflecting on his first encountering the then-scandalous Jurgen in the 1950s Australia of his youth. Barry Humphries is best known to the world as Dame Edna, but you don’t have to know anything of his comedic brilliance to appreciate the essay he wrote.

Now, as to the hardcover . . . It will be printed in an edition of 17 numbered copies, each one signed by me, Barry Humphries, and James Branch Cabell. This last is a bit of a trick, given that Cabell died almost fifty years ago, but Henry Wessells achieved it by sacrificing an incomplete set of the Storisende Edition of Cabell’s works (originally 18 volumes) and harvesting the signed leafs. Pretty neat, huh? Several of those copies are reserved for myself, Henry, and Barry, which means that the edition is going to disappear fast. Serious collectors can inquire for a subscription price, which (the press release says), “includes shipping within the USA and a copy of the trade issue.” So you can read the essay and still keep the limited edition copy pristine, you see.

3. Stinking Bishop cheese. Magnificent! And, yes, stinky. An almost brie-soft cheese with great mouth feel, delicious flavor, and an odor that some have compared to old socks. Why does the cheese have that name? Not for the obvious reason, but because as part of the ripening process, it is washed in cider made from the Stinking Bishop pear. Why does the pear have that name? Because it was bred by a man named Bishop who had such a horrible temper that even after he died the neighbors invariably referred to him as “Stinking Bishop.”

The above, children, is a story that your mothers want you to think about very seriously.

4. “Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!” This was written with Eileen Gunn. Yes, the Eileen Gunn – the brilliant, brilliant writer whose recent collection Stable Strategies and Others collected the entire output of over a quarter-century of writing. The woman whom Howard Waldrop gloated was an even slower writer than he. I tricked her into this through the expedient of not telling her she was working on it.

Okay, that’ll take some explaining.

See, Eileen is on the board of Clarion West, the science fiction writing workshop, and that worthy institution has a yearly Write-a-Thon for a fund-raiser. She talked me into participating (Eileen can talk anybody into anything), and to help goose the publicity, I suggested we have a forum where the two of us talked smack at each other while desperately trying to meet our individual goals. In the course of which, I invented Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia, a service guaranteed to render even the most recalcitrant writer productive. Eileen, of course, was a hard sell, and kept putting up objections as to why the service wouldn’t work for her. After about six exchanges, I saw that there was a story to be had here. So I kept egging her on, she kept rising to the bait, the metaphors kept getting mixed, and . . . voila! When there was sufficient wordage, I took the lot, cut, edited and revised, and then handed it over to her for a final rewrite.

I sent the story to F&SF and Gordon Van Gelder bought it by return mail.

You can, if you wish read the inchoate mass from which I crafted the story in the Smack-Down at Clarion West forums.

But now comes the real challenge. Can we finish and sell the other five stories we’re collaborating on? Particularly given that Eileen knows she’s working on them? Stay tuned and find out.

5. THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. This is Vladimir Bortko’s 2005 television adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy masterpiece. All I can say is wow. Russian film-making is back on track. The length afforded by its being a miniseries made it possible for this version to stay faithful to the book. The special effects are spotty (Behemoth looks like – and probably is – a midget in a cat costume), but the acting more than makes up for that. Wonderful performances by a cast that’s gotta be made up of some of the finest actors in Russia. I’m working my way through the second of three disks, and I couldn’t be happier.

The exteriors were shot on location, where Bulgakov set them. I could tell. When I was in Moscow, the first place I went was Patriarch’s Ponds, where the novel begins with the Devil striking up a conversation with two literary men. Marianne and I went to all the M&M sites we could find, and seeing them again is like a return to the city. Thanks, Vlad!

6. “A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Usefulness.” This is an essay which recently appeared in the July 2007 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. I wrote it because, like most working writers, I’ve gotten sick and tired of the term “fix-up.” Originally used o describe a novel cobbled together from pre-existing stories (like A. E. Van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy), its meaning has since broadened and softened, like a slab of overripe brie left out on the carpet overnight. Now it’s routinely used by reviewers to dismiss without a proper hearing books that were never anything like a true fix-up to begin with. “It’s a fix-up,” they say. “On to better things.”

So I decided to take the little bastard down. Over the course of the essay, I split the formerly-meaningful term into a welter of old and new categories – mother texts, offspring fiction, shattered novels, cannibalizations, mosaic novels, chimeras, braided mininovels, serial novellas – analyze individual works, assign blame, heap on scorn, illustrate with examples, and create two entirely new posthumous collaborative short-shorts, thus making the essay itself (by the now-discredited standards that held sway when I wrote it) a fix-up. It is my fondest hope that nobody who reads the essay will ever again be able to employ the term “fix-up” inappropriately without blushing and feeling foolish.

7. “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .” Whatever happened to stories with long and glorious titles? Back in the day, you’d pick up something called “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones” or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and you knew you were in for something out of the ordinary. Well, I’ve just written one and sold it to Asimov’s Science Fiction. FBF’nGWF... won’t be to everybody’s taste, I’m afraid. It’s a pyrotechnic piece, all bells and whistles and literary flare. But, oh man, was it fun to write!

And the plot? Steam jungles, giant intelligent millipedes, war, betrayal, a spunky space suit, one desperate human, and of course the occasional lecture on Marxist economics. You know . . . good old fashioned pulp fiction.

8. PAPRIKA. Satoshi Kon’s made some of my favorite anime, particularly Tokyo Godfathers and the transcendent Millennium Actress. But Paprika is a huge artistic step upward for him. It’s probably the visually richest animated film ever made. There’s an obvious love here for the possibilities of anime, the kinds of images that wouldn’t be possible in any other type of film.

And the plot? Imagine one of Pat Cadigan’s “Deadpan Allie” stories, if the internal madness threatened to break out into the real world and you’ve pretty much got it. In fact, the protagonist, Dr. Atsuko Chiba (her name has gotta be a nod to the cyberpunks) is startlingly deadpan, even for an anime heroism. When she enters the dreams of her patients, however, she takes the eponymous avatar-form of Paprika, who has the perky girliness of your standard anime femme. A crucial piece of therapeutic equipment is stolen and misused by person or persons unknown, and the walls between reality and madness begin to break down.

The highlight of the film is a thronged and dementedly cheerful parade led by happy household appliances, followed by horn-playing frogs, clowns, puppets, a shambling Statue of Liberty, torahs, traffic lights, and who knows what, which with increasing frequency invades reality, threatening to dissolve all human sanity into itself. It’s terrifying.

I had the good fortune of seeing Paprika in a movie theater. Watch for the DVD.

9. Big Blue Marble Bookstore. My favorite bookstore in Philadelphia. It’s located at 551 Carpenter Lane and it’s everything you want in an independent bookstore. A small café, a community room, a funky neighborhood, friendly employees . . . Mostly, though, it’s got an appealing, quirky selection of books. Intriguing books. The kind of books that you don’t really need but find yourself buying anyway. Just because, well, you deserve it.

I’ve just learned that I’ll be making an appearance there this September, to promote my new collection from Tachyon Publications, The Dog Said Bow-Wow. More details as I get them. But if you can possibly show up, please do. An evening wasted in a bookstore is always a pleasant evening.

10. The Science Fiction World Conference in Chengdu, China. The date keeps getting closer! Depending on when this gets posted, I may already be there.

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