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I love Michael Swanwick

I really do. Sadly, most of his work, save for the quite good but not nearly the best Bones of the Earth, are out of print. This is a crime. So there will be little linking in this post, because there’s really nothing to link to. Go to your used bookstore to seek this stuff out, or check online.

His novelistic career began with In the Drift which is an ambiguous little book about fanaticism in a post-apocalyptic landscape, set close to home (he lives in Philadelphia). Three Mile Island has melted down and poisoned the landscape. Weird Things Happen. It’s his first novel. I read it a long time ago and it didn’t leave much of a mark.

He hits his stride with Vacuum Flowers, a novel written at more or less the height of cyberpunk, but more full of more interesting ideas than anything other than perhaps Schimatrix, by Bruce Sterling (you should read that, too). Swanwick explores here what it might mean for humanity when the brain is a known quantity. Earth, the planet, has been lost to Earth, the hive mind, know as the Comprise. Everyone else lives in space, because speed of light jitter keeps Earth from branching out too far. The story revolves around a Mysterious Quality held by the by the implanted personality of the viewpoint character. To figure it out, everyone and their dog and their runaway planet will Stop At Nothing to get a hold of her and cut up her brain to figure it out. She runs and she hides, and therein lies the real show. You, the reader, get an awesome guided tour of the survivor state left by the birth of god, where people change personalities like clothes and make deals with the devil (Earth again) to make their deadlines. You meet a man with perhaps the most interesting case of self-inflicted multiple personalities committed to the page. Tyler Durden really has nothing on Wyeth. The characters here are weird, as Swanwick is in full bore Othering mode, forcing the reader to try and understand the experiences of people whose lives are barely comprehensible if you stop to think about them, which, given the short length and rapid pace of the novel, you’re rarely inclined to do. For all that, they’re warm and human and you care about them, although you might not entirely understand their concerns. After all, these are people who alter and replace bits of their minds like the characters in a Warren Ellis comic treat their limbs and sexual organs.

From there, we take a mighty leap forwards time and upwards in vision and style to Stations of the Tide. The book won the Nebula for best novel in 1991, apropos of nothing, other than that it’s out of print now, which, to repeat myself, is a crime against all that’s good and pleasant in the world. The narrative details the journey of an nameless bureaucrat sent by the Department of Technology Transfer to recover some potentially stolen technology on the surface of an embargoed world called Miranda, where the natives may or may not be sentient, and they may or may not be extinct, and most all of the animals have an aquatic for and a form for land, because the unexplained Jubilee Tides overwhelm most of the world every so often. The book notably contains many nods to previous works of science fiction, which honestly are its weakest point. The real meat of the story concerns the bureaucrat’s internal journey towards understanding his and his Department’s role the hinted-at interstellar polity which provides the frame for the story. Earth is mentioned only once, but significantly. The majority of his story is couched in the chaotic fin de siecle ambiance with something of the rotting glamour of New Orleans as it’s often seen in literature combined with the wild west enthusiasm of a dying town where law and order have generally already packed up left. I am completely failing to capture here how thoroughly and convincingly Swanwick establishes and maintains this atmosphere. Every detail, from the most mundane to the almost painfully surreal, helps to further embed the reader into the weave of the story. Again, the trip is the thing, here. The solution to the central mystery is almost secondary by the time you reach it, for you are enthralled first and foremost with the bureaucrat’s internal crisis and debate over a change of direction. Stations of the Tide is definitely one of the better SF books writting in the last 20 years, and would be on any of the lists I keep threatening to compile about what you should read.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter looks like it’s getting a hardcover re-release sometime this year. This is a good thing, but honestly it’s more than a little weird, as this isn’t a book that’s easy to market. There’s no cover image yet, and I imagine that it’ll be at least as bad as the cover for Neal Asher’s The Skinner. As always, I’m totally willing to be proved wrong, but the current trend seems to point to covers that get worse and worse and worse and worse. Expect a separate post about that soon. Anyway. I can’t imagine how they’re going to market this, except as a small release so that all of us who have ratty paperback copies can buy something that might last more than another reading or two. It’s awfully weird and wonderful, emphasis on the weird, I suppose, for the general reader. There’s a seamless melding here of celtic inspired fantasy, contemporary fiction and science fiction. You never really get a clear idea of just how seriously the book is taking itself. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read it, because my copy has been passed from hand to hand to hand and it isn’t quite clear where it’s settled. I’ll re-read it soon, and perhaps update. It wasn’t as much to my taste as Stations of the Tide, but it’s huge and entertaining and filled to bursting with wonderful ideas and rich characters.

To be honest, I’m doing Swanwick a disservice by focusing on his novels, as excellent as they are. Some, perhaps most, of his best work is at shorter lenghts, and there are a couple of North Atlantic Books short story collections of his work, two of which are still available. Tales of Old Earth and Gravity’s Angels, if you live somewhere without a decent local bookstore who can do special orders for you. To be honest, I don’t own either of them, but I should and will and I feel that I can recommend them to you without reservation, as Swanwick’s short stories are generally excellent and it’s pretty magnificent to be able to pick up most of his short stories for less than 25 dollars. And remember, kids, when you’re short of cash, your local library will often surprise you with the breadth of its offerings.

Also worth checking out is his website, which is full of neat stuff.

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