Swanwick, Michael. The Best of Michael Swanwick.

Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2008.

I’ve read — or, at least, begun to read — a lot of Michael Swanwick. Some SF authors, I like everything they’ve done, like Tim Powers. Some, I can’t seem to get through anything they’ve produced, like Michael Moorcock. Swanwick is right in the middle. Some of his novels are really, really good, but some make no impression on me at all. Short stories, of course, are fundamentally different, and this fat volume brings together twenty-one of them published between 1980 and 2007 — and five of these won Hugos within a period of six years, which is an impressive record. They’re presented chronologically here, which allows the reader to observe his development as a writer.

“The Feast of St. Janis,” the earliest, is about America after the Collapse, Pearl singing the blues, and Dionysian social engineering. “Ginungagap” is a startlingly original and very well done First Contact story, which is also about the validity of unique identity. “Trojan Horse” didn’t make a lot of sense, not to me. Reading it was like trying to wade though a field of large foam sofa pillows. “A Midwinter’s Tale,” on the other hand, while it started out puzzling, morphed into a quite fascinating folktale. “The Edge of the World” is an alternate world story (sort of) about air force brats and the power of wishing. Widely considered a classic, “The Griffin’s Egg” is the longest piece in the book, crammed with every hard-science, techie-type SF trope you can think of, about the coming nuclear war between East and West — and it left me totally unmoved and uninvolved. I can’t begin to explain why. But it’s followed by “The Changeling’s Tale,” which is a very nice little fantasy about what happens when a young boy runs off to join the elves. Traditionally, the damned reach their destination via Charon’s ferry, but in “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” they travel through New Jersey by the helltrain, and the porter learns about choices. But I really like Swanwick’s take on what angels are actually like. “Radio Waves” is a Stephen-King-ish sort of tale about death upside-down in the wires and final death in the depths of the sky, and it’s poetically horrific. Essentially, “The Dead” is about the corporate prospects for zombies. The way Swanwick describes the necrophiliac possibilities, the political right wing will love it. “Mother Grasshopper” is about colonists living on a huge space-swimming grasshopper. (Like Great A’Tuin, maybe?) However, as with a number of the stories in this volume, I can’t say it makes a lot of sense. I suspect Swanwick occasionally gets carried away with being original and forgets that he’s supposed to be telling stories for the benefit of others. “Radiant Doors” is a much better story. What do we do when doors open from the future and terrified, horribly abused refugees — our own descendants — begin streaming through, by the tens of millions? What happened? How did it happen? And why? And what happened — will happen — to those who didn’t make it back to our time? We get the kind of future we deserve — unfortunately. “Wild Minds” is about what happens when anyone can be made into the perfect employee — easily, cheaply, safely — and about those who refuse to undergo “optimization.” “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O” is about a semi-trailer full of monsters, a picnic basket full of dead puppies, and a couple of archetypes on the eternal highway to anywhere. A not-bad folktale. “Legions in Time” is meant to be a tribute to A. E. Van Vogt, but ol’ Alfred Elton did it so-o-o-o much better. This one is more of a pastiche, which I don’t think is what the author intended. Swanwick does a lot of dinosaur stories and I’ve always liked Clifford Simak’s quiet pastoral yarns, which for some reason “Triceratops Summer” greatly reminds me of, so I quite enjoyed this one. And maybe it all really happened. “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” is the newest story in the book, a consideration of two alien psychologies (one of which is human) and the nature of trust under pressure. A little abstract for my taste but not bad.

The first of Swanwick’s Hugo-winners, “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” is the best sort of hard-science problem story, about the only living human on Io (Jupiter’s moon, that is) and her decision to survive by becoming something very much else. The second winner, “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur,” is one of Swanwick’s very best efforts — rather better, in fact, than the novel of which it later became a part. On the other hand, the third winner, “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” has always seemed merely silly to me, never mind that it seems to be one of the author’s most popular stories. His fourth Hugo was for “Slow Life,” a combination First Contact and survival-on-alien-world story, which is interesting but a bit confusing.

A parting comment: Subterranean Press has been around for some time and generally does a nice job in terms of physical product, but I found the lack of copyediting and proofreading in this book highly annoying. One doesn’t like to have to pause in the middle of the narrative to figure out what a sentence is meant to say, if only the typesetting weren’t so screwed up.

Published in: on 16 April 2011 at 2:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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