Two Possible Explanations

Every picture tells a story. Here’s the story of this one:

They tell me that right up to the end, Santa couldn’t understand why the elves, whom he had always sternly but in his mind fairly treated, had turned on him so. Hadn’t the hovels of mud and seal sinew that he gave them kept them out of the snow, even if the hovels were not heated, and faced into the wind? If the gruel he fed them once daily was watery and thin, was it not still sustenance? Did he not instruct his overseers and factory goons to whip the workers only when they had fallen behind in production, or were insolent, or spoke during work hours? These were not reasons for rebellion! These were examples of his benevolent generosity.

As the elves roughly stood him up against the wall of the factory, Santa resolved that once his reindeer shock troops arrived to rescue him, the time of his generosity was over. The problem was not that he had treated the elves too harshly, it was that he had not treated them harshly enough. He had made the mistake in assuming the elves could be treated like people, instead of the small, pointy-eared beasts of labor that they were. It was not a mistake he would make again. After his reindeer henchmen arrived, he would make an example of several of the elves, starting with their spokesperson, the elf girl. Yes, yes, she would be the first to go. He smiled at the thought.

Then his smile faltered as this same elf girl stepped in front of the firing squad, accompanied by a familiar, quadruped shape.

“Rudolph!” Santa blurted out.

The reindeer smiled cruelly. “Viva la Elfvolution, Santa,” he said.

Santa stared blankly into his traitorous lieutenant’s red, glowing nose as Rudolph and the elf girl stepped back behind the line. Somewhere in the far, deep distance, he heard the sliding clicks of the firing squad readying their weapons.

Alternately, it’s a picture of my kid at her school’s Christmas choral concert, wearing a festive hat.

Either works, you know?


Come See Me and Mary Robinette Kowal in San Francisco, 1/16/09

An announcement for people living in or near the San Francisco area: On Friday, January 16, at 7pm, at Borderlands Books, 2008 Campbell Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal and I will be appearing together at for something we’re calling “John and Mary Show You Their Shorts” — Which is to say, we’ll be reading from a selection of mostly-humorous short pieces, for your delight and edification.

Mary and I have read together before, most recently at Denvention (which is where we picked up the hardware you see us with above), and we had waaaay too much fun, as did our audience, by all accounts. So we figured, heck, why not do it again? And afterwards we’ll hang about a bit to chat and autograph things you want autographed and so on and etc.

Basically, Mary and I are planning to have a hell of a good time, and so hope you’ll be there to have a hell of a good time with us. Also, in my case, it’s my only currently scheduled public appearance in the San Francisco area for 2009. So if you want to see me, this is the time and place to do it. So, remember: Friday, January 16, at 7pm, at Borderlands Books, in San Francisco. Can’t wait to see you there.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Nick Stone

Personally, I’m not much for fortune-telling… and yet even lil’ ol’ rational me has been known to look at the fortune inside a fortune cookie and be amazed that it contains the right words at the right time. Is it coincidence? An example of the human mind being able to read way too much into very general words? Proof that the universe speaks to us through cookies? Got me. I personally suspect one of the first two, although the third, to be quite honest, would amuse me.

Nick Stone knows whereof I speak: His latest crime thriller, The King of Swords, features tarot and tarot cards as instrumental elements of his book — and as you’ll read, his use of the cards is not accidental. My prediction (based on having read the piece, not psychic ability) is that you’ll find Stone’s Big Idea here very interesting, indeed.


I suppose I was fated to this, to writing a novel about tarot cards. My novel is called King of Swords. The King of Swords is a tarot card denoting a man in authority. He can either be your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on the circumstances – and where the card appears. In my novel, it turns up in people’s stomachs.


I got my first tarot reading in 1985, when I was eighteen. Most people who get their fortunes read are in some kind of trouble, usually emotional – on the receiving end of bad break ups, or on the shelf with end in sight. That wasn’t me. I was simply curious about the things. Jane, a friend of mine at school, had talked to me about how she got her cards read every six months, and how accurate the readings were. I was deeply sceptical. Wouldn’t someone she saw every six months remember at least some aspects of her life, and use that casual intimacy to spin any old portentous yarn? No, she insisted, her reader was the real deal. Her reader had told her she was gong to marry “a foreigner”. At the time she was giving me weighty glances. I guess I qualified as a foreigner – part-Haitian, brown skinned. It never got beyond that between us, the suspense dots, but Jane did indeed marry a foreigner. An American she met in London.

My first reading was a non-event. It cost me £8.00 (which Jane told me was way too much – her reader charged her a fraction of that). I actually suspected the reader was a fraud, or, at best, someone who’d deluded themselves they had powers. (Those are, from experience, the two categories phoney readers fall into – the con artists who overcharge you, and the borderline mentally ill who mistake treatable schizophrenia for psychic insight – of these, more later). She was told me her name was Mary Elizabeth, but I knew it wasn’t. I’d spied an overdue phonebill on her mantelpiece which said her name was Sharon Brandt. I can’t remember the exact particulars of the reading, but two things she told me have stuck – she said I was going to travel, and that I would marry “a dark skinned beauty”.

I did travel after that. I spent eighteen months in what was then West Berlin. I did meet a “dark skinned beauty” (a Brazilian) and, for a while I seriously contemplated following her back to LA.

I didn’t have another reading for about seven years. In that time I taught myself to read the cards. It’s not that difficult. Once you learn the meanings of the things, the kind of reader you are depends, to a certain degree, on how well you can tell a story. Writers would make brilliant tarot readers.

I used to read the cards for friends. I never charged a penny. I was told that it was fundamentally wrong to charge a red cent for a reading, because – a reader told me – like water, psychic powers are a free gift from God, and meant to be used to help others. A reader is only meant to charge the bare essentials. If a reader charges you more than $10 – $20, I promise you they’re fakes.

My readings were pretty accurate. Although I knew the people I was reading for, I’d tell them things I couldn’t possibly have known. I got a lot of repeat business.

I’ve long stopped reading the cards out of respect for my wife (yes, she’s “a dark skinned beauty” – and there’s more to tell). She’s from a Jamaican Baptist family. Her grandfather was a preacher. The cards creeped her out after I gave her a reading which came true.

Am I psychic? Not that I know of. How then did I predict my friends’s fortunes with such accuracy? I haven’t got a clue. I tell myself they were lucky guesses, based on my interpretations of what I had before me. But, to paraphrase Dean Martin, how lucky can one amateur reader be?

A lot of people think fortune telling is bullshit. I don’t blame them. The industry is full of bullshitters – greedy opportunists who prey on the desperate and lonely. It’s a really easy con too. The desperate and lonely always need someone to talk to. All you need to be a good fake reader is good listening skills, an attention to detail and a passable bedside manner. You’ll make a fortune. I’ve had my fortune read by such people. Some of them don’t even know the basic meanings of the cards. I’ve always had fun turning the tables on them. They never see me coming.

One of the best fortune tellers I met was in Haiti. There, fortune telling is rife. My mother used to tell me stories of using ouija boards in the school playground, of people who could tell you your fate by simply looking into a glass of water.

The man I met in 1996 was a remarkable character. He was my late great uncle Fritz’s soothsayer. Fritz set me to see him because he insisted that I wasn’t going to stay in Haiti (as I’d planned to), but that I was going to go back to England because I had serious work to do. Books to write, he’d specified. Although, at the time, I wanted to write, I was having problems turning dream into reality. A lack of focus, a lack of environmental stability.

The man was called Ernest Dupoux. He was in his nineties, frail, stooped and rheumy eyed. He lived in a remote shack. To my surprise he smoked very heavily. Haitian cigarettes (called Comme Il Faut (As it must be)) are incredibly strong – straight from the pipe car exhaust coupled with a donkey kick in the chest strong . Ernest sat me down and without gimmickry (cards, crystals, runes, chicken entrails), lights, incense or trickery basically told me how my entire life would turn out. When he’d finished he told me I’d forget everything he said, and would only remember the details of our meeting in increments, after significant events came to pass.

I’ll spare you the details, but for this. He told me I’d meet my future wife in “May”. He also added that I’d know what she would look like, because I’d see her in a dream the day before. The day I met my wife (on May 22nd 1999), I dreamt that I was running towards a beautiful, dark haired, caramel skinned woman in a beige overcoat. That was indeed the woman I met the following day. I kid you not.

And yes, he told me I’d write.


The King of Swords: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Nick Stone’s Web site here. Read an excerpt from The King of Swords here.


The Best Science Fiction Film of 2008

I tell which it is in my AMC column this week. And while the picture above probably gives it away, it doesn’t give away the films I also nominate for the most overrated SF film of the year, or the one I found the most personally satisfying, or the one I feel bad about being happy it totally flopped — all of which I also discuss over there. So check it out, and be sure to leave your thoughts for the best/most/whatever SF films of ’08 in the comments.

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