21 Things I’m Enthusiastic About This Month

1. Moscow. Yes, I went, and that’s a great deal of the reason why this update is over two months late. Here’s what I wrote to a friend who asked what it was like:

Wonderful, intriguing, difficult, a little mysterious around the edges. You walk through the Resurrection Gates and into Red Square and you can't help feeling that you're at the very center of the world. The streets are absolutely clean of trash and absolutely filthy with very fine dirt. Workers with besoms (not brooms) sweep the dirt into little piles which, so far as I could tell, are never picked up. The people are more hard-charging than New Yorkers, drivers despise pedestrians for not being able to afford cars and treat them accordingly, and our very lovely landlady Olga assured us that we could walk anywhere, any time of day or night: "There are no bandits." Moscow has far too many different flavors of police. I sat in the Secret Garden in the Kremlin and felt lifted above the everyday cares of the world. I ran across a writer of fantastika (they do not distinguish between fantasy and science fiction in Russia) who has sold over sixteen million books, not a word of which has ever been translated into English. Most of the beggars are women. They stand, alone or in pairs holding hands, in the Metro or in street underpasses and sing, beautifully, old and sentimental songs . . . An extremely literary city with far too much history. If I had to sum it all up in one sentence, it would be this one: On the way back to our flat from Patriarchs' Ponds, where the Devil had a conversation with two hacks at the beginning of The Master and Margarita, Marianne and I chanced upon Beria's house.

What can I say? Moscow is one of the great cities of the world, and I love great cities.

2. Gene Wolfe. Okay, I’m always excited about Gene’s work. The guy walks on water. But I mention him because the April The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a Special Gene Wolfe Issue with a big, chewy novella, “Memorare,” by the man himself and appreciations by Neil Gaiman, Michael Andre-Driussi, and my own humble self. How cool is that? Gordon Van Gelder asked me to write something about Gene Wolfe. I tell you, the inner fanboy was really vibrating over that one. My essay is titled “The Wolf in the Labyrinth,” which pretty well sums it up. (You can read it at F&SF site.)

Wolfe has been on a roll recently, with Pirate Freedom and The Wizard Knight and Soldier of Sidon and I see on the Web that he’s got something called An Evil Guest coming out soon. It doesn’t seem fair that a writer that good should be prolific as well. But as a reader I can live with that.

3. The Red Cavalry Stories, by Isaac Babel. I finally got around to reading these stories because Richard Bowes told me they were a formative influence on him and that seemed to me a damned good recommendation. So I took a copy with me to read in Russia. Wow. Babel was a propaganda officer in the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 – he spent most of his time trying to convince Cossacks not to kill their prisoners – and these lightly fictionalized autobiographical stories burn with the authority of a soldier who’s been to Hell and returned to bear witness.

It’s important to read the stories in order, from start to finish, because Babel’s character evolves through the course of the book. Other characters disappear abruptly, sometimes returning drastically altered, other times returning heartbreakingly unchanged, and yet other times – and this is the common experience of war, isn’t it? – are simply never heard from again. I’d argue that The Red Cavalry Stories is actually a novel in the form of its own shattered fragments. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Brilliant, brilliant work by a man who was far too honest a writer for his own good. Isaac Babel was executed by the Soviet government in 1940.

4. Five-year-old Gouda. Oh, man. When they have wine-and-cheese parties in Heaven, this is what they serve. Probably with Amarone.

5. Casino Royale. I finally got around to seeing this on disk. And, yeah, it’s everything everybody said. Daniel Craig is easily the best Bond since the young Sean Connery. This is sort of like James Bond Unplugged. The gadgets have been cut back to almost nothing, as has the gleeful pornographic destruction of consumer items you can’t afford. Oh, and those annoying little quips? All but gone. Felix Leiter is now a character you can imagine Bond liking, and for the first time ever the assertion that Bond has fallen in love isn’t laughable. Plus, there’s that ending that restores the core character trait that defines James Bond – he’s one sadistic bastard. For decades I’ve been wishing I could write one of these films, just so I could reestablish that. Now I can obsess about other things.

6. Vesper martinis. Yeah, I’m aware of how tacky it is to try a drink just because it was in a movie you liked. Particularly when the drink was invented by Ian Fleming. So sue me. The vesper (three parts gin, one part vodka, one half part Lillet, a long lemon peel) is a rounder, mellower drink than a true gin martini. The vodka cuts that antiseptic sting that gin has, and Lillet is a sweet apertif of the sort that you can imagine a young college woman drinking with ice on a hot summer afternoon. Whereas vermouth by itself is nasty – if you ever find yourself with a tumbler full of vermouth and you proceed to drink it because there’s nothing else in the house, well, it’s time to admit that you’re an alcoholic.

Apparently the formulation for Lillet has changed since Fleming’s day, depriving the drink of its bitter aftertaste, a deficiency that a critic at Esquire corrected by adding a pinch of quinine powder. Marianne simply zested some of the white of the lemon peel into the drink.

7. Greer Gilman’s Moonwise. I celebrated Greer’s classic fantasy novel by putting together “A Cloudish Word-Hoard, Being a by No Means Comprehensive Selection of Obscure and/or Intriguing Words of Particular Interest to the Reader of Greer Gilman’s Moonwise,” published recently in The New York Review of Science Fiction. Because if you’re going to read Greer’s work, it helps to know that a beck is a brook and a brock a badger. Here’s a sample entry:

hempen hampen: Reginald Scot, in Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) wrote, “Your grandam’s maids were wont to set a bowl of milk before him... for grinding of malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight. He would chafe exceedingly, if the maid of the goodwife of the house, having compassion of his nakedness, laid any clothes for him. For in that case he sayeth, ‘What have we here? Hempen, hampen, here will I never more tread nor stampen.’” Most likely, this is a reference to the fairy practice of stealing hempen stalks from the field and converting them to riding horses.

Somebody really ought to start a wiki of words to be found in Greer Gilman’s works. But until that happens, if you don’t know the difference between a gabbleratchet and a ghyll, or can’t tell a pace-egg from a pibroch, my little lexicon is the best guide to be found.

8-12. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Julie Phillips’s James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Alisa Kwitney’s Sex as a Second Language, Julie Taymor’s Grendel, and Nightwatch. The first is a graphic novel memoir; the second is the single best biography of a modern science fiction writer to date; the third is chick-lit, the fourth is an opera; and the last is a Russian fantasy blockbuster movie. All of them are reviewed and celebrated in “Five Women and a Movie,” another essay written for and recently published in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

13. “Urdumheim.” Even by my standards, this is one strange fantasy story. It’s scheduled to be published in F&SF sometime soon. I just saw the cover painting by Max Bertolini, whose previous F&SF covers include one for Joe Haldeman's "Faces" and one for Laird Barron's "Hallucigenia." The new cover shows King Nimrod and various of the People, and it’s stunning stuff.

14. The Thirtieth Anniversary of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I marked this by writing “Congratulations from the Future!” a faux-letter detailing the next hundred years of the magazine’s history. It’s chock-a-block with insider jokes which most readers should nevertheless be able to get. (“2076 . . .. The grand old man of science fiction, Charles Stross, is pumped full of endorphins and strapped into a powered exoskeleton so he can appear in public to usher in the Singularity.”) This piece is so light as to almost float in the air, but I enjoyed writing it. At the Nebulas, James Patrick Kelly started busting my chops because I have him dying in the Antarctic Rainforest Preserve in 2061. “Cripes!” I said. “You live to age 110!”

15. Jack McDevitt winning the Nebula Award for best novel. I drove up to New York City with fellow writer Tom Purdom, and on the way we had a long discussion about what a fine writer Jack is, how underappreciated, and how deserving of a major award. So that, plus the fact that Jack is a friend of long standing and about as sweet a guy as you could wish to know, made the award particularly satisfying for me.

That Seeker won is all the more impressive considering what a strong line of contenders there were on the ballot. If you doubt me, look ‘em up and read a few.

16. James Patrick Kelly winning the Nebula Award for best novella. Jim is another old friend. (Would I have dared kill him off in my Asimov’s piece if he weren’t?) Plus, for all the acclaim he’s received over the past quarter-century, this is, shockingly enough, his first Nebula ever. He was wise enough to point that out in his acceptance speech. Wise because if people assume you’ve already got tons of the things, they don’t flood your mailbox with congratulations. Which, let’s face it, is one of the pleasantest parts of winning an award. I remember how, after my first Hugo, a number of folks congratulated me on winning “one more.” Well . . . in the sense that one is more than none, they were correct.

17. Meeting Paolo Bacigalupi. If you haven’t noticed, Paolo is this year’s hot new writer, what Gardner Dozois likes to call “the cumquat haagendazs of science fiction.” He’s had a string of stories that everybody’s excited about in Asimov’s, and he seems like a nice guy. Granted, he’d actually heard of me, and that predisposes me toward any new writer. But Jim Kelly speaks well of him too, and Jim is nobody’s fool.

18. The Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards. Yes, I made the short-list, with “Lord Weary’s Empire.” And there are a lot of cool people on it as well, including my buddies Jeff Ford and Michael Flynn. I told Mike of the tradition Mike Resnick and I have immediately before Hugo ceremonies whenever we’re up against each other. We each say something on the order of “Since it’s too late for anything I say to have any effect whatsoever on the outcome, I hope you win.” Michael Flynn’s response was to say he’s hoping we’ll tie for the award. What a big-hearted guy!

Also on the ballot is . . . Paolo Bacigalupi. He won the Sturgeon last year but – who knows? – this being judged purely on merit, he might make it a twofer.

19. Shaenon K. Garrity’s Narbonic. This is the other Web-based comic about a hot female mad scientist. The one that’s not Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. Garrity recently retired the strip, alas, but I just bought two of the collections. The Narbonic books are extremely-small-press paperbacks, which means they can hard to find. You pretty much have to order them from the artist. On the bright side, however, she did draw a gerbil on the envelope. So I got an original piece of art free.

As for the comic itself, it’s the adventures of Helen Narbon, mad scientist, her evil intern Mel, and her henchman Dave, who has a thing for hot evil female mad scientists. Not that I identify with him! No, I like the strip for the humor, the brio, the . . . uh . . . Oh, who am I kidding? If I didn’t have a thing for hot female scientists, why would I have married one? There’s just something about a woman in a lab smock.

On a peripherally related sad note, Girl Genius cartoonist Kaja Foglio was recently in the hospital after suffering a severe attack of Crohn’s disease. As the Dreamhaven Books blog says, medical expenses are murderous to the self-employed. This would be a great time for you to wander over to Studio Foglio’s online store and buy something.

20. The Audio Edition of Rich Horton’s Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2006. It just arrived in the mail today. I think this may be the first time an entire best-of-year volume has had a separate audio version. Certainly it’s the first one that I’ve been in. (For “Triceratops Summer,” which is the lead-in story, and thank you for asking.) It costs fifty bucks, contains ten CDs, and has a total length of approximately thirteen hours. Is that a good deal or a bad one? I dunno. But any collection which, besides myself, includes stories by Tom Purdom, Douglas lain, James Patrick Kelly, Joe Haldeman, Susan Palwick, Howard Waldrop, Wil McCarthy, Leah Bobet, Robert Reed, James Van Pelt, Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Leigh, Daniel Kaysen, and Alastair Reynolds is a pretty safe bet.

21. Chengdu. Believe it or not, I’m going to be attending the 2007 International SF/Fantasy Conference in Chengdu, this August 24-27. That’s in Sichuan, China. Sichuan is known as the Heavenly Realm. Chengdu translates as the Perfect Metropolis, and all the guidebooks agree that it’s that rarity of rarities, a laid-back Chinese city. More to the point, it’s also home to the conference’s sponsor, Science Fiction World, China’s leading SF magazine, which has a readership of over 300,000. So I’ll be meeting with Chinese fans and writers, autographing copies of the newly-translated Bones of the Earth (Science Fiction World is also a major publishing house), and learning all I can from everybody there.

I learned just yesterday that my good friend Nancy Kress will also be attending. Which is good news for everybody hoping that the American visitors will make a good impression on our Chinese hosts. Nancy is smart, gracious, and (but you already knew this, right?) a terrific writer. Plus she writes hard science fiction.

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