Not So Much, Said the Cat, by Michael Swanwick (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-228-9, $15.95, 285pp, trade paperback) August 2016
Mostly unremarked, this year signifies the thirty-sixth anniversary of Michael Swanwick’s first story sale, in Robert Silverberg’s anthology New Dimensions 11. The astonishing array of high-quality tales he has graced the world with since then would constitute a sufficiency for most writers. But the damn thing is, nearly forty years into his career he is still working at the top of his game. Not many authors can say that.
With a new novel in the works—The Iron Dragon’s Mother—and an ongoing series of stories at Tor.com—the “Mongolian Wizard” saga—Swanwick has still found time to compile a new collection for us, consisting of some seventeen stories that first saw the light of day between 2008 and 2014.
His entertaining and touching autobiographical introduction fittingly looks backwards at this embryonic stage of his existence, and reflects on the start of his professional writing life and a few intermediate quantum leaps of skill. Then he mentions an attitude he had toward the genre, when he was first getting acquainted with all its stellar practitioners: “I read science fiction as if it had all been written by a single genius possessed of an impossible variety of styles and interests.” This is the key to the stories that follow (and to the fact that Swanwick, debuting during the fabled cyberpunk-humanist rivalry, could never be categorized definitively as one or the other). Swanwick is still striving to embody every good thing SF does, all its modes and styles, themes and tropes, in his one lifetime. This makes for a highly pleasing variety in his tales.
Here are the briefest of thoughts and observations on the outstanding table of contents.
“The Man in Grey” is a riff on the famous solipsistic notion of existence as found in previous outings by Heinlein, Leiber and Dick. But Swanwick uses the trope to examine issues of free will as well.
The notion that the future might in some ways come to resemble older periods of myth has been around at least since the New Wave (calling Delany, Moorcock and Zelazny!) and probably in some earlier post-apocalypse tales as well. Swanwick utilizes this fairy-tale future ambiance to good effect in “The Dala Horse,” which finds our heroine on a dangerous pilgrimage beset by trolls.
A trace of Brian Aldiss’s A.I. informs “The Scarecrow’s Boy,” wherein a robot and a young refugee interact. Say the words “alien autopsy” and I’m hooked. So “Passage of Earth” entertained me well. Perhaps the slightest tale here, though not without merit, is “3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar,” about the last night of civilization.
Every writer at one time or another has to follow in Dante’s footsteps and venture into literal Hell. Tim Powers did so recently, and Swanwick’s voyage to the netherworld, “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown,” ranks up with that entry, as we watch loyal daughter Su-yin attempt to rescue her unworthy father. A tragic love affair interlinked with a scientific paradigm shift fills the compact pages of “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” nearly to bursting.
A historical setting and Swanwick’s love of James Branch Cabell informs the amusing “Goblin Lake.” The opening sentence of “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .” is quite memorable: “Imagine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound.” From there, we encounter a sentient spacesuit and other wonders.
“For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” takes all the fraught terrors and beauty of Irish history and ports them 200 years into the future. In all likelihood, “Libertarian Russia” is my favorite tale here, rivalling Bruce Sterling at his own realpolitik, hip, culture-jamming best. And I need only mention the names Surplus and Darger as stars of “Tawny Petticoats” to alert you to the manifold joys of a fresh entry in that series.
Employing a nicely innovative format of all-dialogue, “Steadfast Castle” gambols about freshly with the trope of the sentient house, seen everywhere from Ray Bradbury to The Simpsons. Borgesian counterfactuality is the mode of “Pushkin the American,” while slippage across dimensions is the MacGuffin of one man’s melancholia in “An Empty House with Many Doors.” Swanwick pulls off a particularly good homage to Gene Wolfe in “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin.” And finally, an early German work of prose gets conflated with a modern existential drama in “The House of Dreams.”
All in all, as variegated and smart and ecstatic a ride as you can get from SF these days.
Ultimately, I think what strikes me most forcefully about Swanwick’s fiction, aside from his fresh yet historically resonant conceits, is its elegance and economy. Per the definition of the perfect short story, not a word is extraneous or wasted, not one element of plot inessential. The maximum effects are achieved with the minimum of prose.
And that is an esthetic bullseye which can accommodate an infinite number of subjects and themes, and which an artist can aim for over and over again, during all of his or her career, upping his lifetime score even with a few misses here and there.