Sunday, November 18, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Michael Swanwick

On the occasion of his 68th birthday, here's a set of my Locus reviews of Michael Swanwick's short fiction:

Locus, May 2002

"A Great Day for Brontosaurs" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, May) is a light-hearted jape about a man who has invented dinosaurs – which manages to play nicely with the hoariest of SF clichés.

Locus, November 2002

The October/November issue of Asimov's is another impressive one. There is one story that both by its quality, and its controversial nature, will dominate discussion -- let's hold off on that one. More lighthearted is Michael Swanwick's "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Fun", a sequel to his Hugo winner "The Dog Said Bow-Wow". Darger and the enhanced dog are in Paris now, working on another scam: they claim to have found the remains of the Eiffel Tower. Their victim is a dying (indeed, already dead) man named M. d'Etranger. Of more interest (to Darger) is his beautiful young wife, but Surplus is unimpressed, realizing she is an enhanced cat. It's as fluffy as its predecessor, and as much fun.

Locus, December 2002

Michael Swanwick's work is always worth a look, though I don't think "Slow Life", Analog's December cover story, is among his best. It is interesting: about finding life on Titan, and the way such life might think differently from us. (Unfortunately for my tastes, not quite differently enough – the communications barrier is far too easily surmounted.)

Locus, September 2003

I'd also like to mention Michael Swanwick's series of short-shorts at Sci Fiction, The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, which has been reliably cynical and funny. It's nearing conclusion, and a high point was reached with the entry for Einsteinium, "The Dark Lady of the Equations" (June 20), a lovely (and not cynical!) fantasia about an inspiration for Albert Einstein.

Locus, October 2004

Also in the October-November Asimov's is Michael Swanwick's "The Word That Sings the Scythe". This is a direct sequel to last year's "King Dragon". The fey Will has been thrown out of his home village and finds himself a refugee of war. He hooks up, against his will, with an abandoned young girl named Esme, who seems to remember nothing. She seems particularly lucky, but there is a law of conservation of luck – so her luck doesn't mean those around her are lucky. Will learns a bit more about her when in the refugee camp he meets a woman who claimed to have been her mother – of sorts – long before, for it turns out Esme's history is strange indeed. This is all set in a strange fantastical world, with an array of apparently traditional fantasy creatures – unicorns, ghasts, feys, lubins, and others – and a weird admixture of technology, perhaps most strikingly indicated by the intelligent mechanical dragons, that seem to resemble AI-controlled fighter planes more than anything. This is a fine story by itself, and presages a potentially very interesting novel to come.

Locus, July 2005

The cover story for the July Asimov's is a Darger/Surplus novelette from Michael Swanwick: "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play". Swanwick's scoundrelly heroes, a man and an enhanced dog in a sort of post-posthuman world, are now in "Arcadia": that is, Greece. They are looking for the Evangelos bronzes, in a rather low-tech setting inhabited by fairly ordinary humans and sex-mad satyrs. But some powerful African scientists have taken up residence nearby, and they claim to building gods. Perhaps they are: for a very convincing manifestation of Pan, complete with orgy, soon follows. Darger and Surplus, acting rather more like heroes than scoundrels for a change, discover that the scientists have some sinister goals: there are darker gods than Pan that they hope to create. With the help of some very friendly locals, the two save the day.

Locus, November 2005

“Triceratops Summer”, by Michael Swanwick, a lovely sweet story about an accident at a physics institution that brings a herd of Triceratops into the Vermont countryside. Of course the story isn’t really about dinosaurs, but rather about how to enjoy life and about what lasts or doesn’t last and what matters.

Locus, December 2005

Also in January I liked Michael Swanwick’s “An Episode of Stardust”, a cute scam story set in Faery. It really isn’t anything but “yet another con man story”, but Swanwick uses the Faery setting quite effectively.

Locus, July 2006

From the August Asimov's, a strong adventure tale, set on Venus, from Michael Swanwick: “Tin Marsh”, in which two prospectors learn to hate each other after several months of enforced company. One of them snaps, and starts to chase the other with intent to kill – ironically leading to a valuable strike. Which rather complicates an already complicated situation.

Locus, October 2006

In Michael Swanwick’s “Lord Weary’s Empire” (Asimov’s, December) his continuing character Will is chased into the underground of Babel Tower. In this dark realm he encounters Lord Weary, the leader of a gang of the dispossessed and unfortunate: fey creatures such as haints and wodewoses. Lord Weary plans a revolution, and Will quickly becomes his lieutenant. But their ragtag army has little chance against organized opposition. More important to the story is the nature of Lord Weary himself, a cast down high elf, whose motives are difficult to understand. It’s a cynical but sad story, set in a sad but interesting world.

Locus, January 2007

The Autumn 2006 Postscripts opens with a very fine, and very bawdy, story from Michael Swanwick, “The Bordello in Faerie”, in which a young man in a mining town on the border of Faerie is attracted by the title bordello, only to be very surprised indeed at the nature of the whores there. Inevitably, he becomes addicted …

Locus, February 2008

Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” (Asimov's, February) is fascinating SF (not related to his fine new novel The Dragons of Babel) about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human – who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet … it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry.

Locus, December 2010

In the December Asimov's I also liked Michael Swanwick’s “Libertarian Russia”, another stark look at the future, here one in which Russia’s descent into anarchy is regarded as a libertarian opportunity by the somewhat clueless protagonist – and by some meaner folks;

Locus, August 2011

Best in the August Asimov’s is “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Get Up Again” may be the longest title yet from Michael Swanwick, who has had a few pretty long titles before. It’s about an American of Irish descent visiting the Old Sod, in a future in which aliens have brought prosperity and peace to Earth – at a cost, no doubt. He’s about to head to the stars when he visits Ireland, and there he falls for a beautiful singer. He’s almost ready to toss his future away and stay with her – and he learns that she’s a member of a terrorist group aimed at pushing the aliens off Earth. And she asks him to help … He’s left with a harsh choice, not to mention the question of whether her love is real or aimed at manipulating him. The resolution makes sense, and the story really does work.

Locus, September 2011

And finally the best recent story at is Michael Swanwick’s “The Dala Horse”, in which a little girl from Sweden must travel alone (but with her toy (?) horse) over the mountains. On her trip she encounters a dangerous man, and other forces are compelled to intervene. The story begins with a purposefully fairy tale aura, but to no one’s particular surprise (I trust) it is SF all along, post-Singularity SF, about the choices people – or polities – might make in the context of the classical Vingean Singularity’s arrival. As such, this is by now almost an old story, but Swanwick makes it new again.

Locus, May 2014

As for the novelettes, they are better still. Michael Swanwick's “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” is a stylish deal with the devil variant – an innocent young woman goes to Hell to try to rescue her father. The Devil, in the form of an alluring Madam, makes a unique deal with her … Over the next year , her innocence is tested and (in the way of things) vanishes, which may or may not serve as a win for the Devil. The depiction of Hell is imaginative and rings true, and the resolution is very nice.

Locus, June 2015

My favorite story this issue comes from Michael Swanwick and Gregory Frost. “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters – H’ard and Andy are Come to Town” is about a couple of con men visiting rural Paradise Lake, Texas, in a drought-ridden future. They plan to con the townspeople into thinking they can banish the drought … naturally counting on the unwitting help of the local crooked sheriff. What they don’t expect is the sheriff’s all too precocious daughter roping herself in … The story is very funny, very clever, told perfectly.

Locus, November 2017

Michael Swanwick’s “Starlight Express” (F&SF, September-October) is really good far-future SF, set in Rome. Flaminio is a water carrier, and one day he sees a woman on the platform of the “starlight express”, which seems to be a way to travel to the stars, no longer understood by humans. People sometimes travel through it, but it’s assumed that’s a way to suicide. No one comes back – except here is someone. Flaminio and this woman, Szette, spend much time together, and he learns her strange, sad story, and of course that time must end. An elegant and bittersweet and wise piece.

Locus, December 2017

Michael Swanwick’s “Universe Box” (which was actually published last year, in an edition of 13!) is also fairly breathless fun, in which a thief steals a box with everything anyone could desire in it, and under pressure, has a rather colorless young man named Howard hide it, as the Adversary pursues. Howard has been planning to ask his girlfriend Mimi to marry him, while Mimi has been planning to break up with boring Howard, but the box, and the adventures the thief leads them into, change both their lives. It’s stuffed with wit, with imagination, and with audacity.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the nice retrospective. Wow, 15 years of Swanwick stories, including one of my all-time favorites, “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled" -- which, as you may know, is the failed start to a novel, that just never came together. To our everlasting loss, but still, we have this near-perfect story, with one of the great opening lines in SF: "Hello, I'm Rosamond. I'm dead."