Tag Archives: Michael Swanwick

The Best of Michael Swanwick

The Best of Michael SwanwickThe Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick

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.

Stations of the Tide

Stations of the TideStations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve read or are familiar with Saga, the gorgeous comic series that re-imagines the science fiction epic with a generous helping of fantasy, you won’t be completely at sea with Station of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick had been on my to-read list for a while, mainly due to associations with other authors I enjoy, but I had embargoed his work due to my attempt to finish out this year only beginning works of fiction by minority writers. Not long into this commitment though, I found myself in Chicago with time on my hands, nothing to read, and a paperback edition staring up at me from a bookstore shelf with a price of only a few dollars.

I was weak.

It had been on my radar for a while as a fairly recent cult classic among science fiction enthusiasts. The Gene Wolfe list-serv I follow has buzzed about his work occasionally in the past, and I was reminded recently he was someone I needed to check out when one of his essays appeared in the recently-reviewed issue of Feast of Laughter.

I was not disappointed. Stations of the Tide is surreal, gorgeous, and stand-alone. It’s also dream-like, a bit chauvinistic, and at times opaque. Like Saga it’s a tale that artfully blends elements of fantasy with science on a large interplanetary backdrop. There are lots of science fiction elements dropped causally in the background as aspects and support of the plot, but you never get the feeling– as you sometimes do in hard scifi– that the plot is simply an excuse to highlight or features some new piece of speculative technology.

The story is set on Miranda, an alien world fully colonized by humans but upon which (a la Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus) indigenous inhabitants are rumored to survive. Once every two centuries, the climate of the planet shifts and huge jubilee tides rise to cover the lowlands. The plot takes place primarily in these backwoods Tidewaters, as the protagonist– never named, always simply called the bureaucrat– hunts for a fugitive among towns being abandoned and evacuated in anticipation of the coming, cataclysmic floodwaters.

The power of the book is not in the characters. None of them seem real, except perhaps the bureaucrat’s local partner, Chu, and the story’s villain, Gregorian, a Mirandan accused of stealing forbidden technology but believed on the planet to be a powerful wizard. The rest are caricatures: the administrative superiors the bureaucrat is working for, the woman he falls in love with, and of course– as perhaps intentional and illustrated by his name– the bureaucrat himself. If he’s meant to be a faceless everyman the (presumably male) reader can put himself into the place of relatively easily, this succeeds.

No, the real strength of the novel is the setting and the story-telling itself, which consists of vignette-like chapters in which the bureaucrat moves through this surreal, dream-like (and yet vivid) setting in the wake of Gregorian. And here I think is where the novel illustrates something important about story-telling (important and encouraging to me at least): it’s a powerful example of how to provide a sense of wonder through the “show, don’t tell” maxim used effectively. More than that though, it illustrates an author absolutely comfortable in the world he creates. The history of Miranda is never completely spelled out. It’s simply the world we find ourselves in; it forms a background organically and naturally glimpsed (sometimes frustratingly incompletely) as the story progresses. Same with the technology: no one ever sits us down and tediously explains how surrogates work or the internal functioning of the bureaucrat’s suitcase. The snippets of explanation we do get, mainly between the bureaucrat and his local partner, seem natural because the control of off-planet technology is central to the story and the political tensions on the planet. This is also true of the flora and fauna of the planet itself. Again, these are details mentioned casually in the background: the orchid-crabs, the barnacle flies, the behemoths. Most of them are never actually described in detail, yet you’re given enough to build an image of this world. It’s a strange, alien bayou, with cities being abandoned before the rising waters with a carnival-like Mardi Gras feeling.

Television is an important thematic element throughout. There’s always a television on somewhere in the background, and throughout the novel we’re given glimpses of a serial playing out along the lines of the grotesque pirate adventure that is threaded through Watchmen. It also reminds again of Saga, the ever-present and shifting images on the screen-face of Prince Robot.

Something should also be said about the tantric sex scenes, though I’m not sure what. They’re there and pretty vivid, but what’s vaguely disturbing about their inclusion is that they seem to do little but play into stereotypes that science fiction– even good science fiction like this– is a playground for men and their fantasies, both sexual and technological. The character of Undine, the bureaucrat’s love interest, has the sole purpose of teaching the bureaucrat a couple neat sex tricks and providing an emotional motivation for what is otherwise a straightforward sense of duty (though ultimately these two motivations come to a play briefly in a scene of conflict that for a moment gives the bureaucrat pathos). Yet she doesn’t do this by being any sort of actual character besides a really, really good lover who just happens to take a fancy to the main character.

If Undine represents standard male science fiction sexual fantasies, the bureaucrat’s briefcase represents technological fantasy. The briefcase is a character itself, something like a smartphone might be in several hundred years. It can manufacture anything, integrate into any computer system, and get around on its own. And it’s the perfect servant, always obedient and quick to save the day. Indeed, it becomes one of the most endearing characters because of its faithfulness and resourcefulness. Which makes the final scene with it all the more poignant. I think Swanwick knew what he was doing here, and it’s an ironic commentary on man’s love affair with the technology he creates and controls.

If you’re willing to overlook the awkward deployment of eroticism, Stations tells a powerful, compelling, and enjoyable tale. The plot is meandering, and at times I had trouble figuring out why the characters were going to certain locations or keeping track of characters who disappeared and reappeared throughout the novel. Scenes come and go, only vaguely held together by the pursuit of Gregorian. Some of the reveals at the end seemed forced, and a few were unsurprising. We realize early in the novel that Gregorian is deceptive and the bureaucrat naive. We know to expect a few tricks. But the trick the bureaucrat himself pulls at the novel’s very end took me by surprise, and I’m eager to read it again to tie many pieces together but especially for clues to see if I should have caught the final twist coming.

That’s why it’s a great book. You can’t toss it aside and forget it. It’s going to sit on my shelf, and in another year or two I’ll read it again and figure out how many tangles I can unravel now that I know that whole story. Yet I didn’t leave the first reading disappointed or confused. It’s like a good puzzle. There’s some satisfaction, but I’ll return to it not because I feel l need to in order to fully “get it” but because it’s going to be even better exploring the second time. Maybe it’s less like a puzzle and more like a rambling house. That balance– satisfaction with a single read but awareness that there’s more to return to– is difficult to achieve and I think a mark of a new classic.