October/November 2013 Poland Scandinavia/Novacon Trip

13th October, Montreal

So I’m about to set off for my month-long European trip. I keep second-guessing myself on what I’m taking, but I have made decisions and am packed, all but the computer, and ready to set off in a couple of hours. This suddenly seems like a crazy thing to be doing.

My first stop is Warsaw — well, no, my first stop is Schipol, as pretty much always when I fly anywhere. But my first destination is Warsaw, where I will be interviewed by a lot of radio and TV and newspapers, some of them even before I’ll have had a chance to shower. I’ll be crumpled and sleepy and subtitled. I’ve never been to Poland, I don’t speak the language even a tiny bit, and I’m slightly apprehensive about this, though I’m also looking forward to it a lot. I’ll be there until Thursday, with one public event, a meeting with readers and journalists at Paradox Cafe at 19h00 on Tuesday. If you’re in Warsaw come and say hi… in fact, if you’re in Warsaw email me and we can maybe meet up. I don’t know anyone there except my editor. I love the cover they put on the book. It’ll be fine.

14th October Warsaw

I am in Warsaw.

I slept a little bit on the plane, not much. Warsaw seems like a great city from what I have seen of it so far, lots of architecture, trees, parks, parks with lovely trees, street trees, and interesting detailing on buildings. Akurat’s offices (my Polish publisher) are in a really lovely old building downtown, but get inside and it’s exactly like Tor, books everywhere and a warren of little rooms all leading in and out of each other and the smell of books. Arek, my Polish editor, great guy, met me in the airport and had a selection of Polish pastries waiting for me in the office. He was surprised to learn that I can buy ponki in walking distance of home… Montreal is a cosmopolitan food city.

I’ve been interviewed three times so far, once videoed for 2 blogs, once over lunch for a food and lit blog, and once for a student radio station. I’m due to be interviewed once more before I can sleep. Why aren’t there more food and lit blogs, where people take writers for lunch and they talk about food and writing and then post about it? It seems like a great niche. I had very pretty food. The beet and apricot soup was more like dessert, but the pork stuffed with camembert with redcurrant mouse was stellar. I will be cooking that when I get home.

So far, all the people I’ve met have been lovely and I’ve really liked them. This means I have given them excellent interviews, as the quality of interview I give is directly affected by how much I like the person. If I like them and they ask me good questions, I’ll tell them anything. If I’m uncomfortable, I get really cagey and clam up and can’t think of anything to say. So far so good, I’m having a great time.

The odd thing is that I knew I would, even when I was feeling all apprehensive yesterday before I left. Now I feel I brought all the right things, which are sitting around in this nice hotel room being my things.

Sleep would be nice, but it’ll wait unil after my live radio interview later. And meanwhile the hotel room had a little electric kettle (must buy one just like it) and the new keyboard and stand are making the netbook muuch more usable, and I am drinking tea and listening to my music and posting this until it’s time to go to the radio station.

15th October Warsaw

Z used to believe that people had forgotten how to paint and that modern art was like that because the techniques and abilities of Renaissance art had been lost. I think I must subconsciously have believed that about architecture — that people build and inhabit horrible houses because they have lost the ability to have nice ones. It isn’t money. I mean, it is, but even rich people live in horrible modern houses, not beautiful stuccoed houses with pillars and ornaments.

So 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in WWII, and then they rebuilt it. In the late forties and fifties, they rebuilt the medieval core, the Renaissance and Baroque churches, and half a ton of C.18 and C.19 houses. And they look totally authentic — it helps that nobody’s especially looking after them, so they don’t have that disney look, patches of stucco are falling off just like authentic ones. So they’re modern, but at the same time they have all the ornamentation and statues and plaques and twiddles and pillars and beautiful proportions of window. It makes my head spin. If we can do this, why don’t we? I’m not asking why they rebuilt Britain ugly after the Baedeker raids — well, I suppose I am. But more than that, why don’t people who pay $250,000 for a horrible house have the option of paying $300,000 for a beautiful one? Why is this not on the table?

Oh, and most of the original C.18 stuff was built by Italians, and so the Old Town has a distinctly Venetian feel — it was painted by Caneletto, and when the rebuilt it, they looked at his paintings. I was expectintg it to be like Vienna and Germany, and it isn’t at all, there are Soviet bits and modern bits and the rest of it is more like Italy than anywhere. (No gelato though.) Everyone tells me Krakow is even better, and I’d definitely like to come back sometime and see it.

Also, I have seen the most Romantic statue ever, and as is appropriate it’s of Frederic Chopin. I laughed and laughed. This is it pretty much exactly as I saw it today:

http://ysfine.com/world/poland/chopin01.jpg

and bear in mind that’s a lake and those are big trees, it’s enormous — and this is it close up:

http://www.muphiepsilondallas.org/images/Sept_2002/Chopin_statue_Warsaw.JPG

Nobody deserves this statue more than Chopin. Apparently they have piano concerts there in the summer and being taken to one of those is one of my Polish editor’s first memories. This is in a park that contains also a genuine C.18 palace and several C18 follies — temples, ruins etc charmingly strewn around among the trees and lawns and lakes and flowerbeds. Also the have red squirrels, which I haven’t seen for years as they are becoming extinct in Britain as the grey ones drive them out. If asked I’d have said they were the same, but seeing red ones I immediately recognised and remembered the bigger ears and different shape. Funny how the brain works.

Also on that subject, everyone here looks sort of like me. It’s very weird. Lots of people have hair like mine, and my kind of skin, and they tend to be doughy in the same kind of way. I keep seeing babies and little kids that look just like Z at the same age, and people who look like my father and like me. This is odd and unusual, because I don’t look like my family (except for my father and Z) so I don’t have a lot of experience of that. Of course, this is where my father’s father came from. But I wasn’t expecting trams full of people with cheeks and eyebrows like mine. And people keep assuming I’m Polish and talking to me in Polish, which is also odd because I *know* I look like an anglophone… fortunately my three words of Polish have got me through all situations so far. Polish is an easy language to pronounce, not like French — but it was French that got me through the person giving me their seat on the bus, as “prochain” turns out to be the same in both languages. Oh, and everyone is white except some Japanese tourists. But I didn’t even notice until I was thinking about the way they all look like me.

More interviews in an hour, and then the Paradox Cafe thing and TV interview, and then dinner. The food is really good — terrific breakfast in the hotel with loads of choice without needing to think about bread, and wonderful pierogies for lunch today. I love heavy cold weather food. Not that it’s cold, it’s good weather for walking around and looking at things, and just barely warm enough to sit down outside. Trees are glorious autumn colours, and there are lots of them, including lots of street trees.

23rd October, Stockholm

Stockholm seems to be about a third city, a third park, and a third water. The bones of the earth lie near the surface, and are knobby like bones, so you can see immediately how the Vikings believed the world was made out of a giant’s corpse. It’s an archipelago, all little islands connected by bridges. Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is charming, lovely tall eighteenth century houses reminiscent of Amsterdam and very narrow streets. There’s an excellent SF bookshop there too. There’s also an island of park and museums.

Fantastika was very intense fun — I met a large number of awesome Swedish and Finnish fans, as well as a handful of UK and US fans. Half the program was in English, and I was on it. This went really well, but was naturally exhausting. Great con, about 450 people of all ages.

Since then we’ve had a couple of days of sightseeing around the city and are heading to Oslo on this morning’s train.

25th October, Viking Ship Museum Oslo

It made me cry twice.

You wouldn’t think, right, because it’s a ship museum, and I was expecting it to be cool, which it absolutely is, but not that it would get to me. They have three ships, all of them ship burials, discovered at the end of the C.19, the last one in 1904. That one was a burial for two women, about 870, one aged fifty and one seventy, they don’t know who. It was — they all were — grave robbed by Vikings decades after the burial, so we don’t have gold and silver, but the rest was all there and is all on display. They have the boats as they were, big, in a big hall, and they are elegant and beautiful — two of them in great condition, the other decayed. The one the women were found in has the most beautiful carvings, just so incredibly perfectly right, all the proportions, all the interlocking bits, up the actual prow, just so gorgeous, and incredibly moving just by being right.

They have viewing platforms so you can see them from on top, which are really great, worth going up stairs for.

They have all the bits, sledges and carts and a bed and a chair and shoes and a cauldron and some fabrics. There’s a piece of a Byzantine silk, all horsemen and patterning, and they cut it up into strips for trims, of course they did. All great stuff.

The bed has amazing dragons. The carts and sleds are carved all over, just amazing. There’s a wooden piece with runes that say “little wisdom men”, and nobody knows why.

The other thing that made me cry was seeing Snorri in the shop, the prose edda, a lovely edition with runes on the cover, and I just picked it up and suddenly it had all the weight of the book Snorri gives Saemund to carry home in Sundown, and there it still is, cattle die, kinsmen die, but the book’s still here with the carved wood so we know the stories.

We try to learn, but still so much that we
Can never know for sure, or truly touch.
And worse the unmarked future, there’s so much
Darker and stranger than the pathless sea.
And yet we’re here, and named, and what we are,
And here’s the world as well, so much, so great.
I won’t lament that I got here so late
Or waste my moments yearning for a star.
I see the trees, the boat, the waves, the sun,
The fragments we can gather of the past
The hopes for better futures stretching vast
And so much joy and awe, and so much fun.
Now while we’re here, and live, and breathe, and care,
Let’s look, and talk, and build, and hope, and share.

29th October, Oslo

Oslo is on a fjord. All of Scandinavia that I have seen so far is deeply interwoven with the sea, and woven is the word, warp and weft, like interlocking fingers of a hand. I haven’t been up the Norwegian coast, though I saw a film of it in the Maritime museum, but this is a landscape and a history and a city that makes no sense without the sea. Stockholm is on an archipelago. Oslo is at the top of a fjord, a fractal frond of sea. (“They give a lovely baroque feel to a continent,” as Douglas Adams put it.) The history is all about conquering and being conquered by sea, not by land. They went south to England and Ireland and Normandy and not overland to Finland and Russia. When the Swedes conquered Russia they went by river.

Coming on the train from Stockholm, you come to Oslo through a tunnel, so it happens unexpectedly without any warning. It’s a cheerful cosmopolitan modern European city with excellent public transit — metro, trams, buses, all plentiful and easy to figure out. We’re staying in a thriving immigrant area that has Indians and Somalis and Italians and Turks, all talking Norwegian and seeming to get along well. I didn’t find anywhere like this in Stockholm. Oslo is an expensive city, and we’ve mostly been cooking and eating in the apartment — lots of reindeer sausage and lamb meatballs we bought at a farmer’s market.

We’ve been to a bunch of museums, the way you do when you go somewhere for the first time. The Viking ship museum remains the standout. The Historical museum has a bunch of great Viking stuff, and a display of points that arcs from chipped flints to a modern bullet. Also they separate out all the gold and silver and have it in a treasure room, because it’s treasure and that’s what you do with treasure. (I understand that there may be practical museum insurance reasons for it, but it still feels like that. And they call it a treasure room!) The design museum has some wonderful tapestries. Akershus fortress reminds me of Skyrim.

The Folk Museum has a stave church, a twelfth century wooden church, and a bunch of farms and houses of different periods all brought together to the museum island, Bygdoy — it’s actually a peninsula, but who’s counting? Looking at the farms it’s fascinating how different they are from the Welsh farms in the similar museum at St Fagans — the outstanding difference across all of time is that they have guesthouses, or guestrooms built on. They all do, every one. This is a harsh land where hospitality to strangers is utterly ingrained. There’s an axiom implied in building a guesthouse on your farm, that you will have guests, and they will stay the night.

The Fram museum has the actual ship Fram in it, the ship Nansen took to Greenland and Amundsen through the ice and to Antarctica. It has the whole history of polar exploration, those obsessive men who went through so much to get farthest north, farthest south. The Norwegians weren’t as insane as the British. But walking around the museum and on the timbers of the deck of the Fram, I kept thinking of the Le Guin story in Compass Rose about the women who did it and didn’t leave any record.

Yesterday afternoon I skipped the Vigelund museum and park in favour of sitting in an excellent cafe called United Bakeries which had real tea, great pastries, and a French cook who recognised that I was Canadian. This is the first time anyone has ever recognised my inherent Canadianness, and that normally goes double for when I’m speaking French. Actually though, speaking French was great. It felt like home. I would never in a million years have imagined that. I’ve been speaking English to people who mostly speak perfect English ever since I got to Scandinavia.

United Bakeries, incidentally, is my personal farthest north. It’s the farthest north I’ve been in Oslo, and Oslo is the farthest north I’ve been on the planet. (It’s farther north than St Petersberg, which was Leningrad when I went there in 1987.) This year I also made a new personal farthest south, in New Orleans in February. I appreciate that there’s a lot of the planet south of New Orleans and north of United Bakeries in Oslo, but I’ll leave that for the real explorers, or at least for another year. We’re turning south tomorrow for Copenhagen.

4th November, Copenhagen

The short version is, lots of museums, not a lot of walking around looking at the city because it has been raining relentlessly all the time we’ve been here. It isn’t fair to Copenhagen, but it is offputting, and makes me like it less than the other places I have been.

We’re staying in a big apartment in Charlottenlund, an upscale part of town with a very good local grocery.

The National Museum is excellent, their ground floor starts with the end of the ice age and goes up to the Vikings, and it’s full of stunning displays that are art in themselves. It would be excellent even if they didn’t also have the Gundestrup Cauldron, as it is, it’s outstanding. The top floor does the same with the ancient Mediterranean, with a genuinely useful Cycladian section, and brilliantly displayed pottery. We also saw the Viking temporary exhibition, which was comparatively only OK. We didn’t have time for the other floors, but we much admired the mosaics on the stairs.

The National Gallery is also excellent. AM came out for the weekend and we had a terrific time going slowly around European Art from 1300-1800 and admiring all the awesome stuff. We spent an entire day there.

The Geology Museum is terrific, and when looking at the geology of Denmark section I had the interesting idea of Young Midgard Creationism. Every rock is Ymir’s bone, naturally, and every ammonite or dinosaur is a snake or dragon from Ginnungagap. Every fossil leaf, and there were a lot of fossil leaves, is a dropping from Yggrdasil. Anything anomalous is a shapeshifting Jotun. I kept giggling at exhibits that do not normally make people giggle. It makes so much sense, compared to the Christian version! I also bought a little chunk of Swedish granite in the gift shop, and Elise bought some opals.

We looked into the botanical garden, and we looked into the New Carlsberg Glyptotek museum, which has a lovely cafe, and we walked past Tivoli and some royal palaces. We didn’t take a boat tour or see parks because of the aforementioned rain. We were lucky not to be here for the big storm. There are signs of damage to trees everywhere.

We’re leaving tomorrow for a brief stop in Antwerp and then on to Nottingham for Novacon at the weekend.

7th November, Antwerp

Antwerp is one of those old towns with a gothic cathedral and little streets and squares full of places to sit down and have a cup of tea or something to eat. There are tall houses with gold statues on top just because, and cobbles, and corners that entice you to go around them and see what’s there. It’s also a modern city surrounding this core, of course, with a metro with many stops, no doubt full of people with more serious things to do than buy handmade chocolates and look at Flemish paintings. We weren’t here long enough to explore that.

We got here on Tuesday night, after a fairly gruelling day’s travel from Copenhagen — 14 hours, 5 trains and a ferry, an old man having a heart attack right next to us, dealt with by efficient and kind German paramedics, a strike in Belgium, lots of languages, pine nuts, mozzarella and prosciutto I’d bought in Copenhagen on the train, scampi and potato salad in Koln. The last stretch, the half hour from Brussels to here, we were in the vestibule of a very packed train, where a very kind Canadian girl gave me one of the fold-down seats. This then became an impromptu party, with Elise making pendants for the other people. It was great, as everyone’s mood turned around because art was being made and shared before their very eyes.

But by the time we got to Antwerp at 21.30 we just wanted to get to bed.

So there was only yesterday to wander around the streets and eat and see the cathedral. We had breakfast in a charming little place right outside the hotel then wandered about for a bit. We had lunch with a friend of Elise’s who needed a jewelry repair — great lunch in a pub. I had Flemish beef stew and croquottes. Then we had a little rest and then wandered around for a bit, buying the occasional souvenir, ending up in the cathedral for a couple of hours.

The cathedral is right in the middle, so we’d circumnavigated it several times already, and I’d seen the gothic ttracery of its spire and the geometric perfection of the doors. But it’s also crammed in among everything so you can’t get any perspective on it. It’s enormous. Enormous. And it has perfect proportions, and it’s narrow and it goes up and up.

And it’s full of Flemish art, much of it altarpieces displayed in aisles so you can see both sides of the triptychs, including the chiaroscouro paintings on the doors which people would have seen in Lent when they were closed. I love those. There were four big works by Rubens, who was from Antwerp. The rest were lesser known but still very good Renaissance and Baroque Flemish painters. There was a great war of the rebel angels, and a lovely painting of St Luke painting the virgin in which you can’t tell if they’re in a room with a baroque dome painted with angels or if some angels are just hanging out in St Luke’s studio.

Then I came back to the room and wrote chunk of Apollo snark for The Philosopher Kings while Elise did some shopping and went to mass. First time I’ve done some actual writing since Warsaw.

We had a delicious dinner in another traditional Flemish restaurant/pub.

So it was a lovely restful day in a comfortable city.

And today we’re taking a pile of trains to Nottingham for Novacon, which starts tomorrow.

8th November: To the Person Who Stole My Bag in Brussels-Midi

You didn’t see me and I didn’t see you — I was off buying a bottle of water and a sausage roll while Elise looked after the luggage. But you are a professional, you could have done it to anyone, and you walked off with my laptop bag.

So, what you’ve got. The bag itself was new for this trip. It matches a mug I have. It’s Danica Studio Odyssey bag, and it looks more like a knitting bag than a laptop bag. I liked it, but I hadn’t had it long enough to really bond with it. I don’t think you’ll be able to sell it, so I suggest you give it to your mother to use for her knitting. She’s your mother, she tried to think well of you, she doesn’t want to believe you’re a bad person, no matter what the evidence. She knows you’ve been in trouble, but she still thinks you can turn it around. Bad companions, mistakes made, all of that. Give her the bag, she’ll take it as evidence of how you’re a good boy really. She’s the only person who still believes in you, and you need that. You’ll need somebody to visit you in prison. She can knit in the waiting room. And at the foot of the guillotine. Do they still have a guillotine? Did they ever have one in Belgium? Maybe not.

Inside, well, there’s the netbook. It’s an Acer, with very cool Florence stickers, but I’m going to Florence in a month and can buy more. It has a password on it, and you may be able to get around that or you may not, but it isn’t worth the bother, there’s nothing on it of value to you. Of value to me, yes, especially that thousand words or so I wrote the other night, grr, and all my bookmarks in Firefox, but to you, no. You’d do best to reformat it and sell it. It’s nearly two years old and it cost $217. You have the powercord, with adapters for the world’s electricity, and the awesome little round speaker I bought on the way home from Wiscon, and the headphones I bought on the way to Britain this summer, and the Logitech trackball wireless mouse. The weird thing is a stand so it can be used with a keyboard and have the monitor up high. You don’t have the keyboard, it was in my pack. (You do have the usb key for the keyboard, which makes the keyboard pretty useless.) The stand is a specific one and it was expensive, but almost nobody would want it. I can replace all these peripherals with nothing but money. If you sell the whole lot together on Craigslist you might get a hundred dollars or so. I’d give you more than that to have it back, but that’s not an option is it?

There are two little handmade Viking bags, to which I was very attached. The friend who made them has offered to give me more, which makes me feel better about that. The little one has the charger cord for my Kindle, useless without the Kindle, which is with me. It also has my headphones and two thumb drives. One of them has Protext for Ubuntu. You should try using it. It’s a truly great wordprocesser. Maybe you can write a book and get out of thieving. It’s no way to make a living really. So risky and also making the world worse instead of better. The other thumb drive has Bach’s complete orchestral works and Sassafrass’s Prophecies and Lies. I have them all on CD at home, so that’s fine. Enjoy them. The big one has the powercord and the mouse and the speaker and also a gold chain set with stones. The name of that necklace is Ibidem, and it was made by Elise, the person you did see when you stole my bag. It’s gold and it has special stones and it was a gift from a whole set of friends of mine, but it’s not really sellable. It’s a unique work of art, and very valuable to me, but you wouldn’t get any more for it than the value of the gold as scrap. I think it would be better if you give it your girlfriend. (After you give it to her, she’ll break up with you. She’ll keep the chain, and she’ll pass it on to her daughter when she first breaks up with a useless boyfriend, and she’ll give it to hers and it will become an heirloom in their family.)

Also in the bag are three tins of tea and a mug and a filter. There’s probably about $50 worth of tea, actually, but not resellable, just drink it. The tea in the black tin with the cool autumn trees stickers (I decorated it myself) is pu erh that needs to have the leaf woken — use the filter that’s in the bag, pour boiling water over it, then pour that away. Then pour water at 85 degrees over it and drink that. The handmade teabags are oolong — make the same way, gaba dragon, same way, and rouge et noir, which you just make normally. The little Continental Railways tin, which I’ve had for 25 years and which was a gift from a friend now dead, which makes it probably the least replaceable thing apart from the necklace, has tisanes. Make them the normal way. Give the peppermint to your mother. It’ll be good for her nerves.

That’s all — well, there’s a silk shirt and a pair of underpants, pretty much useless, though I’d rather have them than not.

So you’ve caused me a lot of misery and financial loss, while gaining for yourself, well, maybe a hundred dollars, some music, and a cup of tea. Was it really worth it? One of these days you’re going to get caught, you know you are. Not today, but one day. Not with my bag, but with somebody’s bag. When you’re there waiting for the guillotine, or sitting in a cell waiting for your poor old mother to bring you tea (because once you try it you’re going to get to like it) and news of the outside world, will you be glad you took the risk and took my bag?

I know your life’s hard. But you made my life harder. But writing to you has given me a good sense of what you’re like, and my life is so great and yours is so awful, and due to get so much worse that I suppose I ought to be sympathetic. Tell you what. If you send the netbook, the Viking bags, the Continental tea tin and the necklace to me, care of Tor Books in New York, you can keep the rest and I’ll give you the $300 it would cost me to replace the netbook. I also promise I’ll campaign against the reintroduction of the guillotine, send you pu erh in prison, and let you cry on my shoulder when your girlfriend breaks up with you.

Do we have a deal? Pity about that.

 

Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

13th June 2013: Destiny

There’s a thing I often find productive when I’m writing fantasy that I don’t hear people talk about much.

People often talk about looking at real historical magic, and I find that generally useless and especially when you’re talking about Europe. Genuine historical magic is people groping towards science, and there’s nothing less numinous than magic that works like science. Genuine superstitions are a lot more useful for fantasy.

But the thing I’ve found useful is thinking about different cultures’ different perceptions of destiny.

The Celts had this concept of geas, the destined thing that was going to get you, and everyone had a different one and some of them were very weird and you might or might not know yours. If you know you’re going to be killed by a green boar with no ears, then you know you’re safe in battle — but if you tell your best friend, then when you steal his wife he might go out there with a barrel of dye looking for a boar. It’s an interesting worldview.

The Norse believes in wyrd. Wyrd is odd — you start off with free will, but everything you do constrains everything you can do, so that in the end everything is absolutely inevitable. (Writing novels is like this. The first word can be anything, but the last word has all the weight of what has come before pressing down to make it what it has to be.)

Classical Greece has Moira — moira is the line drawn around the possibilities of your fate. You can’t overstep the line — that’s hubris and it’ll get you. But you should try to fill in as much as you can of your potential within the line. Of course, you can’t see the line…

Christianity has providence — everything happening for the best, everything meant to happen.

I have not encountered any human cultures that don’t have a belief in some kind of destiny. What I’ve found useful in writing fantasy is to look at these kinds of ideas and then put two of them up against each other and see what I get.

Posted in Writing

1st December 2012: 48 Today

And it’s a Saturday! Which does happen now and then, but it seems like a long time since the last time. And I so like having a birthday on the first of the month.

AM is here, arrived last night, and Z and A are joining us for brunch out, then tea out, then home and present opening, and then Azuma for dinner. Yay birthday.

Novels

Among Others in paperback (and reprinted three times), and in UK hardback and e-book, and in Spanish.

The King’s Peace in Hungarian.

No new novels published, or written. It has been an awfully busy year, but that’s not good enough. Sit down and write a book already.

Stories

No short stories — actually I did write a short story. I should do something with it.

Poetry

Nemi in Tor.com, April

Jane Austen Among the Women in Tor.com, April.

And lots here, as usual.

Sold But Not Yet Published

What Makes This Book So Great Essay collection.

Among Others in Chinese, Japanese, Croatian, Roumanian, Portugese, German and French and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

Farthing in French.

Tooth and Claw and the three Tir Tanagiri books in the UK.

Lifelode in e-book form, coming soon from Tor.

Awards

Hugo. (Eeeee!!!)

Nebula.

British Fantasy Award.

Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award.

ETA: Copper Cylinder Award

Award Nominations

World Fantasy Award.

Mythopoeic Award.

So on the whole an unprecedentedly good year on the achievements front. Which I suppose, I mean 47, it’s about the age when you ought to start achieving things, don’t you think?

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, My Books

26th September 2012: May you be written down in your own special colour

In the beginning there were no colours, there was only light and dark, because God hadn’t thought about colours yet. Later, God thought about life, and soon after thought about death, as a way to get old life to get out of the way of new life. And life went on and evolved into consciousness, and God was sad, because it was too late to undo death, and so conscious people had to die, and still there were no colours.

So God made a book where the names of all conscious people were written, and every year the conscious people fasted to take notice of their lives and to take notice of the fact that they were going to die, and every year God took notice of each of them and marked down the ones who were going to die that year. Then, one day, as one of the people took notice and fasted and God thought about them and wrote their name, God loved that person so much (because they were so very very wonderful) that God thought up the first colour, to write down their name. (It was red. If I’d been God, it would have been blue, but in fact everyone agrees it was red.) After that red spread out through the world, getting on sunsets and strawberries and autumn leaves.

As time went on, there were more especially marvellous people for whom God made colours and let the colours out to run through the world, blue getting into the sky and yellow getting into the sun and on and on. Some say there were three, and others say seven people, and others say two hundred and fifty six, but we pity those poor misguided schismatics and say there were an infinite number of people and an infinite number of subtle colours, and God isn’t done with this project yet.

So on the first day of the year look carefully, look widely, look at the world with care so that you’ll notice if there’s a new colour. You won’t know if it’s your colour. (Nobody knows that, and we will have nothing to do with the heresies that try to connect specific people with specific colours.) But when we like people, when we see people who are amazing and wonderful, we say “God will make a special colour to write down your name!”

And we’ll be talking about you specifically when we say that.

(This is for Debbie Notkin and was posted as a response to her journal entry but it’s also in response to everything else on my reading list this morning. And it’s absolutely typical of me that I can’t think of a new mythological thing without immediately thinking of the heretical and schismatic versions of it.)

Posted in Whimsy

12th June 2012: Shakespeare, real thing

When I compared Martin’s A Dance With Dragons to Shakespeare’s history plays, some people got all bent out of shape by the comparison, and it took me ages to understand why. I was indeed comparing Martin to Shakespeare, because they were doing some of the same things, and using some of the same history to do things in different ways. I was comparing what Martin’s doing with council scenes and with the Wars of the Roses to what Shakespeare does with them. (The key play for ASoI&F is the three part Henry VI. Martin has clearly been influenced by it.)

To me, though, Shakespeare is a writer whose work I know, like all the other writers whose work I know. He’s amazingly good, but he’s also a real writer who made choices and dealt with material. But the people who huffily said it was ridiculous of me to compare Martin to Shakespeare know literally nothing about Shakespeare except that he was wonderful. They thought that by making the comparison I was saying that Martin was superlatively good, as good as Shakespeare, because that’s really all that Shakespeare means to them, excellence in literature. They have heard of Shakespeare, and they know he’s marvellous, but he’s entirely out of their own experience. They are like Keats before he read Chapman’s Homer, “oft of one wide expanse had I been told…”

So now I understand their reaction, and hope they manage to encounter some Shakespeare soon.

Posted in Books, Theatre

30th April 2012: Home From Jo March’s Europe

I am home, having spent the last week walking my feet off in Florence and Rome. What I said about Florence last time still very much holds. This time I wasn’t alone with Ada but joined by Z and A and Greer Gilman and we all had a delightful time. I have bought a tapestry, and Z says that the only thing better than owning a tapestry is being aware that he will one day inherit a tapestry. He says he doesn’t care if he never sees another Annunciation, but he loves Florence.

At one point Greer and I were talking about Little Women and Jo March’s desire to see Europe and I remembered something. When I was a child infuriated by Aunt March’s perfidy in taking Amy instead I realised all at once that I was in Europe. I mean I wasn’t in a bit of Europe where any C.19 Americans would have wanted to visit on their Grand Tour, I was in Aberdare, but all the same and even so. I was in Europe where Jo March so very much wanted to be. I could be in Europe for her.

On Friday we went to visit Brother Guy Consolmagno at Alba Longa (or Castel Gandolfo as they call it these days) and we saw the observatory — with a moon rock and a number of meteorites and a rosary made by TNH all in the same case. Then we walked through the papal gardens. There are olive trees and Roman pines and a formal Italian garden with fountains and hedges and statues, and there are the genuine Roman ruins of Domitian’s summer palace among the telescopes of Jesuit astronomers. A was sketching a fountain and I thought that right then I was in the layered complex older civilization that Jo March longed for. That fountain, the ruined theatre behind it, that sunlight through those trees…

We carry ourselves forward, and we carry them with us. Some of them are dead and some of them are imaginary, and they can’t see what we so badly want them to see and we can’t even send them postcards letting them know we wished they were there. But we were there, for ourselves, for them, for you, for the past and the present and the future.

And furthermore, we need to make things and be excited about the things other people make and keep building the possibility that the future might be even more beautiful than the past and have spaceships in it.

Posted in Books, Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

26th January 2012: The Unknown Ocean

I was starting to think the Pacific was a myth. I got a real understanding of the wild surmise.

First, that wasn’t the Pacific, that was only Puget Sound. (But Puget Sound was wonderful.) Then it was only San Francisco Bay. Then we should have seen it from the Coast Starlight, but it was running very late and it was too dark to see anything by the time we got to the coast.

Our first day in Los Angeles we got onto a metro with the word “beach” in the name of its destination and then we walked and we walked and we walked and we couldn’t even catch a glimmer of ocean in the distance before we had to head back or be late for the reading. LA is too big and too spread out. It just doesn’t feel like a place. Phenomenal number of palm trees though. (The reading was OK — only 8 people, smallest one yet, but a very high quality of people.)

After asking advice from Sherwood Smith, the next day we got a bus to Santa Monica, where there is ocean and a “park”, i.e. a beach that’s accessible to the public. Even there we had to walk and walk and cross a scary highway bridge, but two hours each way on buses got us an hour at the ocean and back just in time to take the train to Albuquerque.

It was worth it, because I wanted to see the Pacific, and we have some pictures to prove it, which I will link to as soon as Z does the Flickr thing. It was also worth it because I love the sea, and because it was the sea and that was worth finding out. (Though as Z said as we headed disconsolately back on the metro the first day “Because long train trips was the one thing we didn’t already have enough of…”)

Ways Santa Monica is just like beaches I’ve been to in Britain:

1) a pier and tacky tourist stuff.
2) The sea itself, coming in and out in waves.
3) Wet sand by the sea, dry sand up above.
4) The sea is generally to the west.*

Ways in which it is different:

1) The sun is shining and it is +21. (I would add “in January”, but this is unusual in Britain in any month.)
2) The sea doesn’t warm up even after you’ve been in it for a while.
3) The vast majority of the shells in the sand are alive!
4) Palm trees.

* I have seen the Other Side of the Sea, the Atlantic coast of the US, but I have never been to a beach there. Nor have I been to beaches on the east coast of the UK.

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, Whimsy

13th January 2012: Puget Sound

It wasn’t so much a look of wild surmise when I gazed at the Pacific. Or maybe it was, actually, a genuine one.

The Empire Builder was absoloutely on time — I haven’t been on a train more than half an hour late this trip, good old Amtrak has been operating just the way I like to think of it, slow but comfortable and reliable, far and away the best way to see the US. We left Minneapolis on Tuesday night and spent Wednesday going through the ever fascinating ever-changing landscapes of North Dakota and Montana. If people tell you there is nothing there, they must have been driving. On the train you are high up and can see how the bones of the landscape change and how the settlement patterns change. It’s entirely different from either the Canadian prairies or what I think of as the John Denver prairies further south. Also, it’s winter, which changes everything.

To Z’s intense and almost palpable frustration it got dark before the Rockies were more than a line on the horizon. I went to sleep before the moon rose, but he assures me it was worth waiting for and he saw some mountains, When we woke up and it got light we were in the Cascades, a mountain range sufficiently beautiful and snowcapped for me. Z couldn’t believe there were mountains that big that he hadn’t even heard of. This continued. Later yesterday, Velma told us that people used to worship Mount Rainer as a god, and Z immediately said that he was converted.

So, as you know Bob, the sun comes up in the east. This means it comes up behind the mountains, and so when you’ve just come through them the sky is light a long long time before you see the sun, which gives the most interesting kind of pastel light on a clear day, which yesterday was and today also bids fair to be. In that wonderful light we came out of a station in a little place called Everett and suddenly the train was running alongside the sea, with another awesome range of snowcapped mountains in the distance and a wooded island, Close up there was sea and rocks, and in the middle ground was sea and islands, and further off were these snowcapped peaks. It was breathtaking. Nobody had warned me, which in retrospect was very nice of you because I’d rather have the surprise and I’m sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone. It was far and away the most beautiful place I’ve seen in North America, and it compares well with Greek islands at dawn and the Scottish Highlands.

So I think it was probably more a look of delighted awe than wild surmise, but I can’t be sure. I can’t even be sure about Z’s expression, because we were both staring out of the window, transfixed.

[ETA: everyone told me Puget Sound isn’t the Pacific. Ah well.]

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, Whimsy

1st December 2011: 47 Today

Great birthday so far — Rysmiel and I went out for a very good meal last night at a new place called French Connection Montreal, which I discovered by the simple method of reading their menu while waiting for a bus. They do a six course tasting menu and they’re really great about allergies. So I had six delicious courses of French food. The lowest points were really pretty good, and the high points were astonishing, including oysters with pomegranate seeds and lime, and chicken stuffed with sanglier in the style of maki. Amazing. The plan for today is that Z and A are coming over for dinner and present opening this evening. Because Z’s working rather odd hours he will have just got up!

Novels

Among Others Tor, January

Short Stories

“The Panda Coin” Eclipse 4, April

Poetry

The Weatherkeeper’s Diary Stone Telling 3, March

Sappho Beyond Hades Stone Telling 3, March

Serenissima, Strange Horizons, April

When We Were Robots in Egypt Tor.com, April

Secular Humanist Hymn Moral Relativism Magazine, July

Sold but not yet published

What Makes This Book So Great essay collection

Award Nominations

Seiun Award for Small Change books

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, Writing

30th June 2011: Florence, a trip report and a plan

What I suggest you do is arrive at Florence by train around sunset. You’ll be flying into Rome, so that’s easy to arrange — the train from the airport takes you to Termini, the same railway station where you’ll get the train to Florence, and there are trains all the time so you can quite easily time it right. The advantage of this is that you’ll see the city for the first time as dusk is falling, and you’ll walk past the Duomo and the Baptistry and should get to the Palazzo Vecchio just as the sky turns that amazing Mediterranean night-blue that you see in Books of Hours, and all the glass in the windows turns that same colour. You’ll see it every night, of course, but it’s important to see it early.

If you’re not lucky enough to be staying with Thrud in her apartment at the top of a twelfth century tower parallel with the bells of the Duomo, you’ll want to find a hotel that’s as central as possible. In any case, dump your bags and keep walking, walk across the Ponte Vecchio and have dinner at the Trattoria Bordino. Have the truffle pasta. Have the Florentine steak — it’s a huge piece of excellent steak, cooked like seared tuna, so that the outside is well done and the centre is rare and as you eat it you have steak in all its forms. The other really good place to eat on that side of the river is Gusta Osteria — it’s cheaper, and the food is also wonderful — truffle pasta, again, and cheese with honey, and crostini.They also have their own wine made with their own grapes. The food in Florence is just unbelievably great.

After dinner you can walk back over the Ponte Vecchio, saying hello to the bust of Cellini and admiring the closed gold shops, and back past the Palazzo Vecchio. Have a gelato before bed — go to the absolutely awesome Perche No! near Orsan Michele. You can eat it sitting on the steps opposite Doubting Thomas or walk back and eat it in the piazza looking at the Palazzo Vecchio, but it will be too late to watch the sky darkening by then. You can do that on the other nights, looking for the first star that dares to shine on Florence.

The thing about Florence is that it’s all of a piece. It’s beautiful, and it’s all medieval and Renaissance. There’s Etruscan stuff, but nothing really Roman, and nothing post-Renaissance either, because at the time when normal people were knocking things down to build eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, Florence was already a highlight of Grand Tours and inspiring those buildings. The newer stuff is all outside the old city walls. Inside the old walls (which aren’t there any more, although the gates are) it’s all walkable, and there are hardly any cars. There are two street numbering systems, based on whether the building was commercial or residential in the sixteenth century. This is confusing, especially as they may not be the same now — zoning never works — but it’s traditional. All the buildings, the little shops, the hotels, the restaurants, the houses, are Renaissance or earlier. If you’re used to seeing ruined castles and abbeys, although you know they’ve been ruined by Cromwell and the Reformation you subconsciously think they’ve been ruined by time. They haven’t. They just haven’t been kept up. Florence has all the hallmarks of medieval stone architecture, but it’s been constantly lived in. If they abandoned it the roofs would fail and plants would eat the mortar and it would all fall down, but then so would your house, and probably considerably faster. It’s weird to walk into a pizza place that’s clearly barrel vaulted, but you get used to it. It’s all that old. The Uffizi and the churches you have come to see are the newest things here. Italy has never been conquered by people who didn’t secretly admire it. This shows.

Thrud’s a Renaissance woman. She’s spending a year in Florence to do research on Marsilio Ficino, the translator of Plato and one of the people who helped kickstart the Renaissance. (I love the expression on Florentine’s faces when she tells them she’s there to work on Ficino. They smile a little private delighted smile.) She’s a Renaissance woman in the other sense too, as well as publishing academic works she has written novels, she writes, sings, and performs music, she paints frescos, makes clothes. She’s one of the coolest people I know, and I know a lot of cool people. She’s the perfect person for me to be with in Florence, because she knows so much about it and because her mind meshes so well with mine. We spent a week having a great conversation about art and history and allegory and beauty and philosophy. You know the way really good conversation bounces? Nothing is more interesting than good conversation.

The patrons of Florence are Mars, John the Baptist and St Zenobius, and the symbols of Florence are David and the River Arno. (Can’t you imagine them arguing at committee meetings?) The language of Florence is a very Latinate Italian, extremely easy to read and fairly easy to understand once you have the rhythm of it but very hard to predict — I kept coming out with things that were half Latin and half French. Many people speak English, but then again wouldn’t you if addressed in half Latin and half French? With my language talents, it’s just as well that I was born speaking everyone’s second language.

Florence was never really feudal. After the Guelphs and the Ghibellines had finally sorted things out, the Ghibellines houses were flattened to make the space where the Palazzo Vecchio is, and the piazza in front of it, and the sculpture gallery to the side of it, where Michaelangelo’s David was made to stand (and a perfect copy stands still) and where Cellini’s Perseus holds Medusa’s head high and his sword ever ready. The Palazzo Vecchio is where the Florentine Republic (1115-1512) ran its government by the completely mad method of chosing names of eligible men from leather bags and shutting them up in the castle for two months with complete power, to be replaced by another eight men for the next two months. Meanwhile they hired a Podesta for a year, a younger son of a noble from elsewhere, who worked to run the police for the city and lived in the Bargello (now a lovely museum) and at the end of the year was exiled from Florence forever. The idea was to prevent tyranny. It’s crazy and it couldn’t possibly work and eventually (1434) it got taken over by the Medicis behind the scenes and then Savonarola (1494) and then (1512) the Medicis again as Grand Dukes of Tuscany. (But meanwhile it’s 2011, how well are your institutions doing at repelling tyranny?) You can go in and see Macchiavelli’s office, which they keep kind of quarantined. There are wonderful doors with portraits of Dante and Petrarch.

In the Pitti Palace, which was built by the Medici dukes, there’s a room that shows the decline and rebirth of the ancient world. There’s a fresco showing the ancient world being destroyed by a set of rather mythologically mixed monsters (harpies eating Pegasus) and one showing Lorenzo de’ Medici welcoming refugee muses to Florence, and another of him surrounded by sculptuors and artists and Ficino, with an inset in which Truth is dispelling any doubts Lorenzo might have about the reconcilation of the pagan world with the bible. The last panel shows a swan drawing a medal of Lorenzo out of the water, but in the corner are the fates, spinning and weaving and cutting as always, and that wall connects on to the wall where time and monsters are destroying civilization and everyone is weeping over the lost books.

I had the reaction to that room that people are supposed to have to religious paintings — a great affirmation of my heart’s belief, and the recognition that other people have felt the same. I am only moved by religious art by an effort of imagination.

There was a lot wrong with the ancient world, and there was a lot that was ridiculous in the Renaissance view of it. But there are ways in which the Renaissance dream of Classical Antiquity is better than actual Classical Antiquity, because it leaves out the slavery and the armies and the injustice. It’s all about the art and learning. We too can look at history and keep the best of it while deploring the awful things. The Renaissance truly flowered in Florence, and while you’re there you can see work by Botticelli and Raphael and Michaelangelo and Leonardo and Cellini and Galileo and Donatello. You can see the Baptistry, with the mosaic of hell that Dante would have seen as a boy, with the doors Ghiberti designed — and in between doing the designs and doing the doors, Brunelleschi invented linear perspective, so the model doesn’t have it and the real doors do. You can see the neoclassical San Lorenzo that leads you to think about the soul of Cosimo de Medici, and the monastery of San Marco where every monk’s cell has an individual fresco by Fra Angelico. You can see the Duomo, which they started building in the confident hope that somebody would figure out how to build a dome that big before they got to it. (Brunelleschi did.) You can go to the Uffizi, which is a world class art gallery. (I suggest you become a friend of the Uffizi to avoid the queues. The membership also gets you in free to most of the other places you will want to go, and the Uffizi itself is too big to see in one day. You may well save money, and you’ll certainly save time, and if you end up spending a few extra Euros they will go for the preservation of art treasures, which is still a win.)

Best of all, everywhere in Florence you can see the physical evidence of a time and place where people were passionately excited and making things and inspiring each other and competing to make better things. They were rediscovering the works of antiquity and not just imitating them but surpassing them. They were just starting to discover science — you can see Galileo’s telescope, and Leonardo’s machines — and experimenting and learning and caring.

Right next to San Lorenzo, you can see the Laurentian Library, which at the time it was built held all of Western knowledge neatly laid out on reading shelves and lecterns designed by Michaelangelo. All the knowledge they were aware of would fit into that room, absolutely everything. Then after that there was a time when it wouldn’t all fit in even the biggest room in the world, and right now it all fits into your phone. What a wonderful modern age we live in! Florence doesn’t just tell you that people there had a Renaissance once. It shows you that having a Renaissance is a possible thing to reach for. So what I suggest is that when you come home from Florence we start to make things and show them to each other and have another Renaissance, starting here and now. OK?

Posted in Human culture