San Francisco: Tachyon Publications; $15.95 tpb/$9.99 ebook; 285 pages
Michael Swanwick has been around a while now, and has racked up his share of major awards. It seems to go without saying that he’s a pretty good writer. So I’ll go a little further: on the basis of this collection, he is a short story writer on the order of Theodore Sturgeon, Shirley Jackson, and Roger Zelazny. Not that he’s much like any of them, but he’s become that good.
He is a fine stylist, to begin with, but not with one characteristic style: he fits the style to the matter. And his matters are various.
One thing he does often, even regularly, is Making Strange, what Darko Suvin has called alienation or cognitive estrangement; but he does it so gracefully that you only gradually realize how strange what he’s showing you really is.
Let’s look at some stories.
“The Man in Grey” is a variation on a theme previously worked by such luminaries as Sturgeon (“Yesterday Was Monday”) and Heinlein (repeatedly, most notably in “They”): the conceit that the world is a stage or deceit where most of the people are props or automatons, and one of the real people accidentally gets a glimpse behind the scenery. He runs some new changes on it, most notably telling the story from the point of view of a stagehand rather than the discoverer.
“The Scarecrow’s Boy” is a really creepy story of AI exceeding its programming. In a different way, so is “Steadfast Castle,” which breaks Creative Writing Rule #1 by doing no showing at all, only telling, and makes it work brilliantly.
Deals with the Devil are a dime a dozen in sf/f; it’s something of a miracle when a writer actually comes up with a new twist on the old-and-moldy. Swanwick goes one better: “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” is not only a genuinely original take on the deal with the Devil, it is simultaneously an inversion of the Orpheus myth.
“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” gives us a buddy story that isn’t a buddy story at all, told from a rather different point of view, and an epic journey with a really alien (and plausible) alien. It is, also, a story of multiple levels of betrayal—a theme that appears in several of these stories.
One of these is, I think, the best story in the book: “Tawny Petticoats.” Its opening paragraph is a small miracle of compression. Consider how much information, how much world building, is contained in three sentences:
The independent port city and (some said) pirate haven of New Orleans was home to many a strange sight. It was a place where sea serpents hauled ships past fields worked by zombie laborers to docks where cargo was loaded onto wooden wagons to be pulled through streets of crushed oyster shells by teams of pygmy mastodons as small as Percheron horses. So none thought it particularly noteworthy when for three days an endless line of young women waited in the hallway outside a luxury suite in the Maison Fema for the opportunity to raise their skirts or open their blouses to display a tattooed thigh, breast, or buttock to two judges who sat on twin chairs watching solemnly, asked a few questions, thanked them for their time, and then showed them out.
That’s 133 words (okay, three long sentences ...) that set the tone, establish in what kind of world we find ourselves, and begin the plot. Many first paragraphs in sf/f do that, but damn few do it so completely.
“Tawny Petticoats,” by the way, isn’t exactly science fiction, and it isn’t exactly fantasy—or maybe it’s both. It is hard to tell whether this is a weird future or a weird alternate world and whether the wonders we are shown are magickal or technological or both. The name “Maison Fema” makes me think “weird future,” but there’s plenty of evidence for both sides. Or, maybe it’s something else entirely. It’s also a story of the long con worthy of the late Donald E. Westlake.
This book contains stories with gag punchlines and stories with really nasty spikes in the tail, stories sweet and bitter and bittersweet, stories to make you laugh and to make you sigh, stories that appeal to the intellect and stories that appeal to the emotions (though most of them do at least a little of both). And the words and sentences dance and shimmer like an exotic dancer with the wrong number of limbs, enticing and delighting and horrifying all at once, so you want to but maybe you don’t dare....
Yeah. Swanwick is that good.
Dan’l Danehy-Oakes lives in Alameda, California.