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Michael Swanwick : Dinosaur Dreams June 2004

Michael Swanwick debuted in 1980 with novelette "The Feast of Saint Janis", and has been a full time writer since 1983. His novels are In the Drift (1985); cyberpunk Vacuum Flowers (1987); Stations of the Tide (1991), a Nebula Award winner; SF novella Griffin's Egg (1991); Dickensian fantasy The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993), a World Fantasy Award nominee; Jack Faust (1997); and SF time-travel Bones of the Earth (2002), a Hugo and Nebula nominee. Being Gardner Dozois (2001), his book-length interview of Dozois, won the Locus Award for non-fiction and was a Hugo nominee.

A prolific short-story writer, with a proclivity for short-shorts in recent years, Swanwick has won awards for "The Edge of the World" (1989, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award); "Radio Waves" (1995, World Fantasy Award); "The Very Pulse of the Machine" (1998, Hugo Award); "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" (1999, Hugo Award); "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" (2001, Hugo Award); and "Slow Life" (2002, Hugo Award).

Photo by Beth Gwinn

Locus Online's Michael Swanwick bibliography
Collections of stories are Gravity's Angels (1991); A Geography of Unknown Lands (1997); Moon Dogs (2000); Tales of Old Earth (2000), a Locus Award winner; Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures (2003); and A Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna & Five British Dinosaurs (2004).

Swanwick recently published two popular series of short-shorts serialized by online magazines: The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, weekly installments of 118 elements, appeared at Sci Fiction, May 2001 to November 2003, and are being gathered into a collection by PS Publishing, due late 2004. The Sleep of Reason, a series based on Francisco Goya's 80 "Los Caprichos" etchings, was published by The Infinite Matrix, April 2002 to October 2003.

Swanwick lives in Philadelphia PA with his wife, Marianne Porter.


Excerpts from the interview:

“I don't write in specific genres. It's all a continuum to me. It's all literature, and the literature I happen to like is inherently strange. There are stark and striking images which can only be achieved in science fiction or fantasy, which is why I tend to stay in genre, but it's not that I insist on writing in one category or another. When I wrote Jack Faust, I didn't know whether it was fantasy (because it was a deal with the devil story) or a science fiction novel (because it was a mad scientist story). The American edition was packaged as mainstream, and the British edition was packaged as horror. So what genre was it? Well, it hardly matters.”


“Science fiction, no matter how strange it gets, has the advantage of literality. It's talking about a world that could really be, that could exist in what we imagine this universe might be. That's an extraordinary advantage. Fantasy is more fluid; it has the freedom to deal with irrational things as real. Science fiction usually doesn't, not in the same way. There's a greater freedom than SF affords, but it comes at a price. The payoff has to justify that extraordinary license. It's a lot like the early mountaineers climbing Everest, who would pop handfuls of amphetamines to keep themselves going -- they always said, in their accounts, to give them more energy. Well, speed doesn't give you more energy; it borrows that energy from your body, and it all gets paid back. Similarly, in fantasy when you've got giants and ogres and dragons wandering around, you've borrowed a great deal of patience from your readers and you've got to pay them back. At the end of the story they have to think, 'This rewards me for having believed in these children's fairy-tale elements.' If the story is superficial, if your readers are left unsatisfied, you've annoyed them in a way you don't with science fiction.”


“I have frequently talked about what I call 'hard fantasy.' Hard fantasy is the core material: undeniably fantasy, nothing but fantasy, and not an imitation of anybody else's fantasy. It is the stuff lesser writers imitate. Tolkien wrote hard fantasy -- there was nothing like that before he did it. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, E.R. Eddison's books, and Mervyn Peake's books are all hard fantasy. Works derivative of them are simply not. One example of hard fantasy is The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. China Miéville's work would qualify as being hard fantasy as well as New Weird. There's a lot of first-rate stuff coming out right now.”


“I started from zero. All I had was a little riff I could use when I got stuck, about an element being 'the couch potato of the Periodic Table -- it never hitchhikes to the West Coast naked; it never falls off of the Matterhorn and is saved only by the quick thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson, and one piton,' and so on. I used it a lot earlier than I was hoping: I came to vanadium and couldn't find out anything interesting about it. So I used my 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. And boy did I get letters! People were really mad. Turns out vanadium has got a lot of fans. They wrote saying, 'It's a catalyst, for godsake! How boring can a catalyst be?', or, 'Vanadium may not be one of your fancy elements, but it's a good, solid, blue-collar element. It does its job.' Later, I discovered people were putting 'The Periodic Table of Science Fiction' on lists of tools for teachers to use to turn young people on to chemistry. So I had just stabbed every high school chemistry teacher in the world in the back! God will get me for that.”


“The first section of my next novel, a fantasy, has been published as 'King Dragon' in The Dragon Quintet, edited by Marvin Kaye. It is set in a Vietnam-style war in Faerie. A dragon crashes and, wounded, crawls into a small village and declares himself king. The events of that story shake loose the novel's protagonist and send him out into the larger world as a refugee. He goes off to a much stranger place than his native Faerie, toward adventures I hope will be satisfying to the fantasy reader while at the same time being a subversion of all that is good and decent in fantasy!”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the June 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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