Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus by Michael Swanwick
The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus, Michael Swanwick (Subterranean 978- 1-59606-936-7, $40.00, 200pp, hc) April 2020.
When Michael Swanwick first introduced us to his redoubtable rogues Darger and Surplus in the Hugo Award winning “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” back in 2001, many readers immediately saw them as descendants of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, a duo whose DNA has shown up in the work of everyone from Joanna Russ to Michael Chabon. In his introduction to The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus, though, Swanwick tells us that the idea for Surplus – or Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, the enhanced upright talking dog who dresses like a dandy – was actually a response to the Learned English Dog in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. And Swanwick’s setting, a steampunkish world reduced to Victorian levels of technology decades after an apocalyptic war between AIs and humans, is a far cry from the pulp-era Nehwhon of Leiber’s original sword-and-sorcery tales. Darger, meanwhile, borrows his name from the outsider artist Henry Darger, and apart from his capacity to cook up elaborate schemes at the drop of a hat, is distinguished mostly by not being distinguished at all – “so nondescript in appearance that he could disappear in the smallest of crowds.” Through the six stories and four short-shorts collected here, and in the novels Dancing with Bears and Chasing the Phoenix, we can follow their adventures from London through Paris, Greece, New Orleans, Germany, Russia, and even China, often leaving chaos in their wake – even though they don’t always make off with as much loot as they’d hoped.
The “postutopian” of Swanwick’s title refers to the “mad, glorious years” of science, technology, and engineering that look a lot like our own era. While most of that technology has been lost, its terminology survives in ironic, talismanic names like Lord Campbell-Supercollider or Lady Coherence-Hamilton. The biological sciences have continued to advance, however, replacing some of the functions of that technology. England’s Queen Gloriana, for example, is a giant, genetically engineered creature with 36 interconnected brains, whose “processing capacity is the equal of many of the great computers from Utopian times.” In Greece, ancient gods are recreated as biological experiments whose engineered pheromones can spread feelings of passion (as with Dionysus) or despair (as with Thanatos). In New Orleans, criminal masters turn a majority of the population into obedient zombies through the injection of a proprietary drug. Underneath it all are the “demons and mad gods” of the electronic information realm, long since driven underground, but waiting like Lovecraft’s elder gods for a chance to regain a foothold in the physical world. In other words, Swanwick has put an impressive amount of worldbuilding into his postutopian settings, drawing freely on the materials of SF, fantasy, and horror in a manner not too different from his Iron Dragon’s Daughter series.
This world is both richer and darker than would seem necessary for the essentially comic capers of Swanwick’s raffish duo. In “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, when the two first meet in London, their main goal is to steal a diamond necklace, but the scheme comes to involve the discovery of a long-forbidden modem, that many-brained queen, uplifted apes and dwarf savants, and a fiery escape that threatens the entire city. “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport” finds them in Paris, literally trying to sell the Eiffel Tower – long since demolished, but with its ruins hidden somewhere – to a wealthy Parisian who wants to rebuild it in his own name. (When they visit him in his grotesquely over-decorated chateau, Darger says “in the final analysis, does not money trump good taste?” – an oddly prescient line for a story published in 2002.) In both of these stories, the pair are en route to Russia, where their adventures are detailed in Dancing with Bears. By the time of “Girls and Boys Come Out to Play”, they’ve made their way to Greece, where their scheme involves reclaiming the “Evangelos bronzes,” allegedly stolen from England by a wealthy Greek as a kind of payback for the Elgin marbles, but they are sidetracked when they discover a group of brilliant African bioengineers trying to resurrect those ancient gods and their pheromones as a means of ruling the world. Perhaps the darkest tale here is “Tawny Petticoats”, with its chemically induced zombies in New Orleans, where Darger and Surplus try out a version of the real-life black money scam, involving crates of black paper cut to look like banknotes, promising their marks that, through an elaborate process involving silver and an engineered microorganism, the “banknotes” can be restored to their true value. As is often the case, though, a lovely but larcenous young woman, the Tawny Petticoats of the title, nearly proves their undoing.
“There Was An Old Woman…” is the one original tale here, although Swanwick also appends four vignettes which he describes as “noncanonical,” since they don’t quite fit in with the future history he outlines in the other stories (nevertheless, they collectively form a kind of sequel to “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, since they involve the pair’s efforts to sell the title to Buckingham Palace – which they accidentally destroyed in that story). Now they find themselves in Germany, where Darger manages to get swallowed by a giant dragon, whose interior turns out to be a luxury hotel maintained by a rogue AI, while Surplus is captured by metal soldiers and forced to work in an eerily concentration-camp-like mining settlement. With the two separated for most of the tale, each is forced to come up with an escape plan of his own – Darger not only for himself, but for the other captives of the AI, many of whom have resigned themselves to their odd fate; and Surplus for his fellow miners. Unlike the other stories, the focus is not on an elaborate con game, but on using their ingenuity for survival, and even for a bit of heroic action. It may not be as scandalously enjoyable as the earlier tales, but its degree of invention is as ingenious as ever, with the Silver Lady who serves as the embodiment of the hotel AI one of the more intriguing secondary figures in the whole collection. As those Hugo voters apparently recognized nearly 20 years ago, Darger and Surplus not only join the small company of SF’s classic rogues, but the world they occupy is as complex, detailed, and morally chaotic as we’ve come to expect from the best of Swanwick’s fiction.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.
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