My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Michael Swanwick is a hero. He’s apparently (unless this has changed very recently) the only living person to win five Hugo awards for his writing in six years. From what I can tell he doesn’t have an enormous output, and his works haven’t made him a household name among nerds like Gaiman or Le Guin, but he’s still a literary hero. His novel Stations of the Tide was critically acclaimed by people who like literary science fiction (and those are the kind of people I like). I knew he had written short stories, but most of them I had never read. So I was quite excited when I stumbled across Subterranean Press’s Best of Michael Swanwick anthology among the stacks at my local library.
Reviewing anthologies is difficult, especially when an anthology by a writer who can do as many different things as well as Swanwick can in his writing. Each story in this collection is a winner (literally, as all the Hugo winners are included). Each one cuts like a piece of glass in your mind’s eye, scintillating and lovely and dangerous. Each one puts you in your place and reminds you however much you like to think of yourself as a writer of science fiction and fantasy you should settle down and shut up because this is how it’s done. (Or at least, each one did for me.)
Anything you want is in here. Weird future versions of the United States in the vein of Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights”? You get it from the start with “The Feast of St. Janis.” Science fiction that does new things with the idea of identity and technology applied to the human mind? You get that scattered throughout, starting with my favorite piece in the collection, “Ginungagap.”
In Swanwick’s science fiction, technology is not just FTL and spaceships. It’s at perhaps its most prescient with the idea of technology that is able, for better or worse, to re-map and re-wire the human mind. This becomes something of a theme in the anthology, treated at most length in “Wild Minds,” a subtle little piece that detonates like a mental hand-grenade.
Apart from questions of identity and mind, you also get science fiction pieces (and two of these won Hugos) that examine scenarios of encountering intelligent life— weirder and larger than the tropes you expect— within our own solar system: “The Very Pulse of the Machine” and “Slow Life.” Here Swanwick’s realism comes into play as he offers scientifically accurate vistas of worlds in our own solar system and thoughtful physical and philosophical treatments of what encountering life there might be like. Which is probably why they were so well received. They’re doing what science fiction is supposed to do: taking what we know about humans and what we know about our universe and putting them into possible and challenging juxtapositions to see what emerges.
Another theme I noticed in these stories in retrospect is an accident, an injury, or a death that plays a central role in transforming characters and their environment. It comes out in both of the first contact stories mentioned above, as well as “Trojan Horse,” “Griffin’s Egg,” “Radio Waves,” and “Mother Grasshopper.” The idea of knowledge through wounding or brokenness is sort of a tautology in literature in general, but science fiction often seems to feature (at least classically) the best and healthiest of humanity facing the worst the universe can offer. In Swanwick’s work, there’s something about being broken, wounded, less than whole that allows touching, interacting, and perceiving the universe in an important way. No one faces reality in these stories unbroken. (Does anyone really face reality another way?)
Swanwick also knows time-travel, and he knows what to do with it: either set up a perfect and heart-wrenching paradox (“Scherzo with Tyrannosaur”), use it to create an idyllic eternal (sort of) summer (“Triceratops Summer”), or go all mythic-poetical and throw out epic yarns that stretch time like taffy (“The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O” and “Legions in Time”).
And then there are the tales that are most effective of all because they’re singularities. You can’t lump them into a group with anything. They’re alive and awful (as in both awe-filling and the other meaning but in a good way) and will stick with you long after you’ve closed the cover. I’m talking about “A Midwinter’s Tale,” which seems in my mind definitely a homage to Wolfe. It takes something of the strangeness of the alzabo from the New Sun and puts it in the atmospheric haze of Fifth Head of Cerberus or even Peace. “The Edge of the World” is a perfect story that is grimy and magic and reminiscent simultaneously of Bradbury, the Arabian Nights, and Stand By Me. “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” is a perfect story about hell and the train that goes there.
And then finally “The Dead” and “Radiant Doors” are horror stories that are horror not because of the creepy future-things in them (and there are creepy things and horrifying futures) but because the creepy things are mirrors. The creepy things are us, and they’re already here.
So this is a book to read (and preferably to own) if you want to surround yourself by living, breathing stories that can kick the crap out of you as a reader and hopefully let some of their technique rub off on you while they’re doing it. They’re aspirational stories in that sense. At least for me, as a writer, they made things start clicking and sparking in my brain (probably because they were kicking it so hard). Swanwick is a master, and this is a book of masterworks. If you love Gene Wolfe’s short stories, you should read this book.
But it’s not perfect, and the perfection of the stories within made a few glaring shortcomings of the book itself obvious. Firstly, there were typos. And not just little typos: huge, embarrassing typos that at times threatened to obscure the meaning of pivotal sentences. At one point, a character is making an important conclusion about understanding something that is “yours” when every other clue in the story and the context indicates he must have meant “ours”. If this was a carefully-edited volume I’d just assume there was a subtly in this exchange I must have missed (like in a Gene Wolfe story), but this is a volume that elsewhere put “arid” for “and” as well as a host of other mistakes. For the work of a wordcraft like Swanwick, that’s a crime. (Though either the editing got better as the volume went on or I stopped noticing it, because it didn’t seem as a bad in the second half— though misplaced, reversed, or dropped quotation marks continued to abound.)
Secondly, there was no listing at the beginning of where the stories first appeared. There was a copyright attribution that told when they were published, but not where. This is a shame, as one of my favorite things about anthologies is seeing where these stories first saw print. In my opinion at least, it’s kind of an essential historical record that goes along with story anthologies.
Editing faults aside though, the book is still worth its weight and shelf-space. It’s like a writer’s guide on how to be awesome. How to tell devastating stories with huge ideas.
But put it on a top shelf, out of reach of the kids, because another big theme in this work is sex. And not sex that’s just sort of a thing that happens to characters to keep things spicy but left sort of narratively vague. Nothing vague here. There’s pretty much a detailed climax scene in almost every story.
I don’t consider myself too much of a prude (I probably am) but to be honest after a while this was kind of off-putting. If there was a male protagonist, and a female character was introduced, you knew what was coming. To be fair, sometimes the details were essential to the plot or tone (as in the general dreadfulness of “The Dead” or the central paradox of “Scherzo with a Tyrannosaur”) but in most of the other cases it wasn’t. Yet that’s not to say it’s in there just for kicks. Michael Swanick obviously likes sex, his characters enjoy it, and he writes about it with the same vigor and description as he does the other aspects of his stories.
I’m not sure how I feel about this (besides prudishly embarrassed). It might be, I think, an illustration of what my colleague who teaches English and who wrote his dissertation on the work of the Catholic author Graham Greene has often said about Catholic literature. (And though Swanwick was raised Catholic I have no idea if he practices.) My friend says that a characteristic of Catholic authors (and perhaps a reason there are few real literary giants among evangelical Christians) is that for a Catholic writer nothing is off-limits. Everything in the created order belongs to God. It can therefore all be used in all its gritty and vivid reality. The camera never needs to pan away, as it were. All the physicality (sexual and otherwise) in all its brutality and beauty is okay to use to build story.
And Swanwick does.