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Michael Swanwick – 2008

The nice thing about ebooks is that they’re a lot more affordable than paper books, especially when they’re on sale. Subterranean Press had an ebook sale for the month of September, and among my many purchases was the short story collection, The Best of Michael Swanwick. The collection gathers 21 years of stories written over the course of his career, which began in 1980. Over the course of a quarter-century, Swanwick has been nominated for 14 Hugo short story awards. He won five of those in a six year span from 1999 to 2004.

All of the Hugo-winning stories are included here, along with a selection of Swanwick’s favorite stories. A series of mini-reviews follows after the jump.

The Feast of Saint Janis (1980) –  A representative for the African Union visits a post-war America in hopes of signing a treaty allowing African doctors to train at John Hopkins University. While he awaits the regional governors’ deal, he finds himself touring with a surgically-created lookalike of Janis Joplin and her entourage.

The Feast of Saint Janis is a slow-burn, paralleling Joplin’s career. While the story starts out slowly enough, it slowly picks up on rock and roll energy, reaching a peak with Joplin’s complete burnout as the horrified representative looks on.  Despite its slow start, by the end The Feast of Saint Janis has certain manic intensity that calls to mind Gibson’s Fragments of a Hologram Rose or a number of PKD’s more feverish stories. (Nebula novelette nomination – 1981)

Ginungagap (1981) –  Ginungagap is a black hole lurking on the edge of the Solar System, and its existence leads to first contact with a super-intelligent spiders living on the other side. Abigail is chosen to be the first test subject to pass through the black hole using a new technology developed by the spiders. Her voyage is overshadowed by infighting between the leaders of the project, as they try to secure their own fame and fortune for introducing wormhole travel to humanity.

The story seems a bit proto-cyberpunk – Abigail is an independent contractor brought into the job by a specific set of skills. She plays along with her employer to fund her own way through life, but as the ending shows, she’s just as good at playing the power game as her employers. (Nebula novelette nomination – 1981)

Trojan Horse (1985) – Elin, a lab technician, undergoes a personality implant surgery after a freak lab accident fries her brain impants, scrambling her brain irreversibly. Her new personality is created from the backup of another woman involved in neurological experiments. Her predecessor, Coral, has had her neurological workings reformatted by an experiment to reorganize the human brain, becoming a weakly godlike being in the process. Coral’s personality manifests itself in Elin, as she finds herself hopelessly in love with Coral’s boyfriend, Tory, who happens to be in charge of the experiment. Elin gets involved with Tory’s experiments, and learns the true nature of her relationship to Tory.

Trojan Horse falls into one of my favorite categories of science fiction: cyberpunk with a fair dose of neurological science and philosophy. The story makes us question the nature of humanity, the self, and godhood, and Swanwick ponders the boundaries between them remarkably well and with hallucinatory clarity, if such a thing could be said to exist. (Nebula novelette nomination – 1985)

A Midwinter’s Tale (1989) – A mentally scarred soldier recounts a story from his childhood, involving a mystical celebration and an encounter with an intelligent predator (known as a larl) from his home planet. As a story within a story, the larl recounts the first encounter between humans and larls, and how that encounter changed the relationship between the two.

I might be missing something here – I can see a parallel between the framing device and the story within the story, but they remain running in parallel. Maybe there’s a connection to be made, or maybe the connection is lost in the narrator’s scarred memories. It’s interesting to think about the story on those terms, but the schizophrenic storytelling and the seeming lack of a point to the story kind of irks me. I didn’t really like this one while I was reading it, and I still don’t particularly like it, but at least it got a little more interesting after thinking about it for a bit.

The Edge of the World (1989) – Three teenagers living in a military base in the Persian Gulf, haunted by the specter of war and the prospect of losing each other, take a dangerous journey over the edge of the world. Their destination? A monastery where one’s greatest desires are said to come true. Each has their own reason for wanting to go on the journey, but

A very short piece focusing on character dynamic, The Edge of the World is a very nice, short fantasy piece. The alternate Earth setting is interesting (America owns part of the Persian Gulf, while Kennedy was an emir), and it makes me think Swanwick was building his story off the undercurrents of the leadup to the Persian Gulf War. I’d like to see more stories in this universe. (Sturgeon Award winner – 1990)

Griffin’s Egg (1991) – Speaking of stories set in the same universe, Griffin’s Egg is an indirect prequel to Trojan Horse. An accidental war begins on Earth, and soon after, the military industrial facilities on the lunar Chatterjee Base are attacked with a weapon that induces schizophrenia. A newcomer to the base is technically in command of the unaffected people, but her authority is constantly being undercut by a group that wants power for themselves. A neurochemist races to perfect his cure for those afflicted by the schizophrenia – but his fix has enormous implications for the future of humanity.

Griffin’s Egg doesn’t have the same cyberpunk edge of Trojan Horse,dropping the emphasis on metaphysics and philosophy in favor of a focus on neurochemistry and interpersonal relationships. Here, the characters are more fully fleshed out and the plot a little more complex than in Trojan Horse. Griffin’s Egg, while loosely tied to Trojan Horse, manages to bring its own concepts and story to the table. (Hugo novella nomination – 1992; Nebula novella nomination – 1993)

The Changeling’s Tale (1994) – A young man gives up his relatively idyllic medieval city life in favor of living adventurously with a tribe of elves. As it turns out, the elves have a drug that allows them to experience the past and the future simultaneously, and the man finds out too late that the elves are heading into uncharted territory to die out.

The story is melancholic, told from the view of the man, looking back at what he gave up to go on an adventure. It’s not particularly memorable, but not entirely terrible, either. To this point, Swanwick shows that he can write fantasy competently, although not memorably.

North of Diddy-Wa-Diddy (1995) – When you die in New Jersey, if you’ve lived a life unworthy of heaven, you get put on the first passenger train south to hell. A man whose moral balance denies him entrance to heaven while keeping him out of hell is assigned to work as a conductor on the train. Unfortunately for his moral balance, he finds himself involved in a plot that has the combined forces of heaven and hell focused on his assignment.

This is one of those weird stories that isn’t easy to classify – maybe something that could be classified as modern fantasy. It kind of has a 50s pulp fiction feel to it – adventure, women, trains and gambling all rolled into one. I really enjoyed this story for its simplicity and its unusual setting.

Radio Waves (1995) – Another interesting story about after-death experiences, but a little darker than North of Diddy-Wa-Diddy. After death, the world turns upside down and your soul falls as electrical energy into the heavens, where your waveform stretches out into infinity. The main character finds that he is able to delay his final death by walking around on powerlines and other metallic objects. Constantly on the run from the ever-present Corpsegrinder, he seeks some sort of closure on a life he can barely remember.

This is another lushly imagined modern fantasy story, and a lot more memorable than North of Diddy-Wa-Diddy. It’s a highly original idea, and the Corpsegrinder is a terrifying creation that fits the setting brilliantly. The imagery is nice, especially if you grew up in a rural area, where sometimes the only companion at night is an AM radio. (World Fantasy Award novella winner – 1996)

The Dead (1996) – Someone figured out how to reanimate the dead and reuse them as servants, quickly and easily. They’re even better than the few zombies that have been put into service up until now. Donald is a factory manager, and he is being lured away from his current job to help implement the hand-servants of the future. However, the recruitment process gives Donald a revelation, and the bright future that his recruiter foresees might not by so bright after all.

Oh hey, a story about the future of the service industry once someone figures out how to make ASIMO more useful! In all fairness, the theme is a pretty nifty one – the working class is being put on moribund track, but because the dead are being pressed into service, it doesn’t mean the end of their working lives. Yay labor exploitation! (Hugo short story nomination – 1997; Nebula short story nomination – 1998)

Mother Grasshopper (1997) – Somehow humans have become miniature and have built an entire civilization on the eye of a grasshopper. It’s a civilization where one lives hundreds of years, and any attempt to live less is punished with banishment and ruin for one’s family. The story begins with the narrator coming in contact with a wanderer from the central region of the grasshopper, bringing with him the release from the hustle and bustle of life – death itself. The narrator is forced to become his assistant, and the two travel the world together, spreading death in their wake. One day the stranger disappears, and the narrator begins a personal quest of hunting him down, for vengeance.

Another interesting story with a fascinating setting, this time on the body of a grasshopper. One of the cool asides is the discussion of gravitational fields on different parts of the insect. Other than a few science-fictional themes, though, this story seems like a tale straight out of gothic Americana.

Radiant Doors (1998) – A bunch of radiant doors open and disgorge refugees from the future. Ginny is a psychologist, fresh on the job of interviewing the refugees and learning about the horrors that possibly await humanity. Quickly falling apart under the stress of listening to refugees talk about pure evil and the technoloical devices that help it flourish, Ginny becomes enamored with a strange trinket brought back in time – a machine that compels anyone under its influence to do its master’s bidding. But the device is possibly a planted object from the future, and its true purpose may be to create a stable time loop.

Radiant Doors is mostly an interesting study of character, discussing the effects of dealing with horrible things on a daily basis and the psychological stress it creates. Swanwick does a good job at portraying Ginny’s deteriorating state of mind. Another cool thing about the story is the use of technology to perpetrate evil – sort of a futurist update to Nazi use of technology. (Hugo short story nomination – 1999; Sturgeon nomination – 1999; Nebula short story nomination – 2000)

The Very Pulse of the Machine (1998) – Martha Kivelsen and Juliet Burton are the first humans to land on and explore Io. However, a buggy crash leaves Burton dead and Kivelsen effectively stranded with 40 hours of oxygen left. Kivelsen begins a mad, 45-mile run to make it back to the lander, Burton’s body in tow, before her air supply runs out. Kivelsen has an interesting drug in her inventory to keep her awake the whole time, methamphetamine, but when she discovers signs of intelligent life on Io, is it real, or just hallucinations caused by the meth?

One of my themes of interest is the exploration of what life on other planets may look like. Here, the life is a sort of biological computer – circuits created by the crystalline sulfur. This life takes advantage of one of sulfur’s properties: rubbing it creates a charge. Kivelsen’s actions post-accident reawaken an ancient computer on Io, created by some advanced species. Assuming she’s not hallucinating, that is. Swanwick is very good at creating ambiguity, and it pays off well in this story.(Hugo short story winner – 1999)

Wild Minds (1998) – Another story set in the Trojan Horse universe. The rewiring process first developed in Trojan Horse has been perfected and implemented across the Earth. At first a tool to help the ambitious climb further up the ladder, at present it is almost required to get a job. The narrator, though, remains unenhanced. His conversation with a woman who has undergone the treatment shows some of the drawbacks of the process and leads into a questioning of the human experience.

An interesting dip (not a dive like Griffin’s Egg) into the universe of Trojan Horse. The theme is much more tightly written than either of the two, owing to its shorter length. It’s a questioning of the human experience, whether giving up one’s self in the pursuit of success is a good thing. Another interesting idea touched upon is the human over-reliance on technology to fix its problems, sometimes at the cost of creating more problems. (Hugo short story nomination – 1999; Sturgeon nomination – 1999; yes, Swanwick had three stories up for the Hugo and two for the Sturgeon in 1999)

Scherzo with Tyrannosaurus (1999) – Mysterious benefactors from the future have given humanity the gift of time-travel, and humanity seems to be putting the technology to good use. The narrator is a paleontologist running a fundraising dinner to put together a months long scientific expedition to the Cretaceous. Which naturally means that the fundraising dinner is a day trip to the Cretaceous, to show off the time period to their donors. A brief fling with one of the guests, though, puts a damper on his enthusiasm for time travel after he finds out the consequences of his one-night-stand.

I really liked this story. Who wouldn’t? It’s a time travel story with complicated time loops (pulled off fairly well) and dinosaurs! Awesome factor aside, it’s a cool little short story. Scherzo with Tyrannosaurus doesn’t have the depth of a lot of other stories in this collection, but it’s still a fairly well-written, if standard time-travel story. (Hugo short story winner – 2000; Nebula short story nominee – 2001)

The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O (2000) – So what happens when an archetype makes off with the wife of the demiurge himself? Some adventures through time, that’s what. Crow is the archetypical trickster, hauling cargo through time in the pursuit of endless supplies of money. Annie is the wife of Eric – demiurge and the head of every pantheon ever conceived. Annie is brash and adventurous, a much better companion to Crow than Eric. But Eric is a jealous god, and his minions pursue Crow through time. Eric will eventually catch Crow, but Crow, being a trickster, is playing a longer game.

To be honest, I felt like this story was a much shorter version of Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s not quite the same thing, but it plays around with a number of the same themes, namely the conjuring of gods and a trickster’s ability to outwit any number of schemes against him and his companions. It reads a little better too, it lacks the convolution and some of the bloat of American Gods. But then again, the  comparison is tangerines to grapefruits.

The Dog Said Bow-Wow (2001) – Darger is a conman working the docks of London. Surplus is a genetically engineered dog-man traveling around the world.  Darger is in possession of a modem, illegal and dangerous to use after the development of daemons capable of manifesting in the real world. Surplus carries himself like a diplomat. Together, they devise a scheme to steal the crown jewels.

Set in a post-digital steampunk world, The Dog Said Bow-Wow is more of an adventure story with slight science fiction elements. It’s a fun mashup of steampunk, cyberpunk, and heist stories, all rolled up into one. (Hugo short story winner – 2002; Sturgeon nomination – 2002; Nebula short story nominee – 2003)

Slow Life (2002) – Lizzie O’Brien is an astronaut working on Titan. As part of the first manned expedition to the moon, her job is to investigate atmospheric processes. However, after her exploration balloon receives a coating of impure methane ice, she finds herself stranded at altitude. Her despair is enough to make a connection with a powerful sentient life-form living beneath the ice-sheets of the planet.

Originally conceived as a webcomic for a space-oriented news site, Slow Life eventually morphed into a short story when the original project fell through. As a result of its origins, Slow Life is a fair bit harder sf than much of Swanwick’s material in this collection. It’s an interesting look at life on the other planets. However, don’t think there’s not an aspect of the softer sf that Swanwick is very good at writing: it’s also a look at the thought processes of someone who knows they’re about to die, and the lurid, voyeuristic lengths some people will go to witness it. (Hugo novelette winner – 2003)

Legions in Time (2003) – Another weird time travel story. Eleanor Voight is paid $2/hour (1940s money) to sit at a desk and watch a door for 8 hours a day. Her employer, Mr. Tarblecko, is extremely rude, and as it turns out, part of a race of cruel superhumans that can control others around him simply by speaking commands. Determined to find out more about him, Eleanor sneaks into the world that the door conceals – and begins a journey through space and time.

The story seems more like a pastiche of 70s dystopian and time travel stories, and to be honest it’s kind of bland. There’s time loops, the effect of cybernetic enhancement of brains and its potential for indoctrination, and some other plot twists, but it’s nothing that Swanwick hasn’t done much better in other stories. (Hugo novelette winner – 2004)

Triceratops Summer (2005) – If you had a summer to live without consequences, what would you do? After an incident at the Institute for Advanced Physics accidentally creates a hole in space-time, allowing a herd of triceratops to roam into modern day Vermont, the narrator decides what to do with a bunch of time that will be reset within 3 months. He takes out a loan and has a stay-at-home vacation with his wife.

It’s not really too much of a science fiction story – sure, there’s triceratops and time travel, but it’s really a Bradburyesque story about hard-working country people. It’s a very slow, sweet story about a couple using their borrowed time to deepen their relationship, tinged with the melancholy that they’ll never remember how they spent their time. I liked this story, especially because the mellowness was a nice contrast to the grim darkness of Legions in Time.

From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled (2008) – The planet Gehanna is home to a species of intelligent black millipedes. These millipedes are the target of a human expedition seeking information on habitable worlds possibly fit for future colonization. The humans and the millipedes don’t see eye to eye, especially after an attack levels half of a millipede city named Babel. Carlos Quivera is the sole human survivor of the attack, while “Uncle Vanya” is a millipede on a mission. Despite their mutual distrust, Quivera and Vanya strike out to find the city of Ur before their attackers can find them.

While the plot is carried along by a simple quest, what makes the story interesting is how two non-compatible economic systems work. The millipede economy is trust-based, having developed because of the xenophobic fury with which hives are capable of attacking one another, while the human economy is information-based. As a result, no side is able to understand what the other seeks in return, and so their negotiations are predicated on mutual distrust. It’s rare to see a sf story dedicated to economics (even if extremely simplified), but here it is. An interesting read, if only for the novelty.

So, I first started writing this post back on October 9, adding a short entry after each story as I read it. I finished reading the book on the weekend of the 20th, but decided to wait a while longer before writing a wrap-up section on Swanwick’s work as a whole. I think it’s important to describe what the book left me with after the initial impression has faded a bit.

One thing that I found myself getting tired of rather quickly was the amount of sex in the works. In a lot of cases, it seemed like it was a little unnecessary to tell the story, and kind of seemed to be in there as poor-man’s character development. It’s handled well in a couple of cases, but usually it detracted from the story rather than adding to it.

Swanwick is a fairly talented writer (you don’t get nominated for the Hugo 14 times if you’re not), but the quality is dependent on exactly what genre he’s working in: cyberpunk-brand sci-fi, time travel, hard science, or urban/dark fantasy. He’s very good at coming up with some unusual, but highly interesting fantasy settings. Despite my usual ambivalence to fantasy, I found myself liking them a lot more than even some of his cyberpunk and scientific sci-fi, which are more of my forte.

I think part of my problem with his time travel stories is that a lot of the plot devices are cliche at this point, and probably were at the time of their writing. His dinosaur stories are part of a much broader setting that he explores in more detail in other collections of short fiction, but at least as presented here, they’re kind of stale stories. They’re competently executed, but forgettable.

I would recommend this collection for readers who like to read a range of sci-fi and fantasy. It’s a great overview of Swanwick’s work in different fields, and if you find yourself pulled in a specific direction or another, there’s further reading in other collections of Swanwick’s prolific writing. Personally, I found the stories to be hit or miss, but at least here the hits far outnumber the misses.