Legend of Michael Swanwick
by ALEX CARNEVALE
To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier: for a long time the admiration of Michael Swanwick has been one of the most encouraging features of our political and cultural situation. If Swanwick were to fade out of cultural currency, we would be lost. We would have no master to imagine how things are in other worlds and places, what rules they follow, and what life means, wherever it is.
Swanwick's best novel is his most recent, the picaresque address to 9/11 that he titled The Dragons of Babel. Here he reimagined the throbbing nation of his 1993 novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, where elves, centaurs, feys, faints, and mortals live side-by-side in a post-industrial fantasyland. Where The Iron Dragon's Daughter was caustic, hilarious, and frequently absurd, 2008's The Dragons of Babel takes the same world and a similar coming-of-age story and turns it into a maudlin eulogy to what we believe to be modernity.
Swanwick's protagonist is the appropriately-named Will, a fey born in a town that accidentally gets a war dragon for its lord and master. Previous imaginings of the stately lizards pale in comparison to Swanwick's half-metal, half-biological engines of fiery destruction...that run on gas. (Just like in our world, natural resources drive the war machines.) Since Will is half-human, he's the right make and model to enter the dragon's depressive cavity, which contains a control center that attaches itself to him by needles.
Once Will embarks to the wider universe, he finds that tragedy and comedy coexist side-by-side in a war-torn timescape that bears as much resemblance to 19th century America as it does Middle-Earth. Swanwick made the distinction between a more literary purview and steampunk in his classic essay The User's Guide to the Postmoderns, and in The Dragons of Babel he's keen to violate his own distinction, making a world where the ancient coexists with the modern. Any world this complex is likely to be far older than ours, and Swanwick knows that the line of improved technology doesn't necessarily lead to a future of hyperspace and stainless steel.
Swanwick's latest entry into the fantasy + sf milieu follows in the footsteps of two of his most magical peers, Ursula K. LeGuin and Gene Wolfe. What can be said about all three besides that they should be far better known than Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert ever were? Science fiction itself as a genre opens up a massive can of worms - in a world of endless possibilities, which to choose? Adding a non-science element widens the palate further. This is dangerous ground that really shouldn't be attempted by amateurs, but its rewards are manifold.
What these three titans share is a love of examining morality - whether the good are really good, or whether they're just mediocre.
Swanwick's dinosaur sf novel, Bones of the Earth, opens with a paleontologist sitting in his Smithsonian office, when he is greeted with a strange job offer. He can't imagine giving up his cushy gig, until his guest presents a blue cooler and places it on his desk.
Inside is the head of a freshly killed stegosaurus.
Such imaginative leaps would be at best gimmicky or at worst laughable in less talented hands, but Swanwick's many trials in short fiction honed his art of straddling the difficult line of the fantastic and simply unbelievable. Nowhere was this more evident than in the novel that made his name, the explosively original Stations of the Tide. Swanwick won the Nebula award for this short novel, whose protagonist is a bureaucrat. Half-Dune and half a prescient warning of our underwater future, Stations of the Tide proved that Swanwick is Gene Wolfe's equal in constructing a maddening unexplainable universe, and his planet Miranda is unforgettable.
What also distinguishes Swanwick from his lesser rivals is the lack of predictable formula in his plots. Comparisons to Gene Wolfe, the master of science-fantasy, are again inevitable, and Swanwick hasn't been shy in professing his admiration for his peer. Like in Wolfe's magical Solar Cycle, Swanwick never takes you exactly where you think he's going, preferring to broaden your view of what you thought was true.
For example: in The Dragons of Babel, Swanwick has a novella-length sideplot that's as satisfying a tale in its own right. The burly fey Will ends up in the gigantic tunnel system below the legendary city of Babel, recognizably New York City. In these sewers blind white horses take around agents of a dark and educated power who rallies the faints and ghouls of the underworld. At the story's astonishing climax, the heroes are annihilated by the villains. The onslaught of terror never felt like such fun.
Swanwick's characters are also an important key to his genius, as in his adaptation of the Faust legend where it would be simple to be overwhelmed by all that's going on. It's easy to describe many of his novels as picaresque, which is to say their drama and humor rests more on the satirical situations the hero finds himself in than any innate quality of their person. Sure, Will is more Horatio Alger than Hamlet, but none of this would matter if his agents of satire weren't fully fleshed out creatures themselves.
This month Swanwick's best short work has been collected by Subterreanean Press in a beautiful volume titled The Best of Michael Swanwick, or as the author describes it, the best of me. Swanwick excels in the short form, where satire thrives and rarely has to answer for its sacrifices. He's currently working on a sequel of sorts to "The Dog Said Bow-Wow", his story in Asimov's that should have won a Nebula in 2002, and he's just completed a biography of the criminally underrated fantasy writer Hope Mirrlees. In stories like "Griffin's Egg" and "Slow Life", Swanwick proved his mastery of harder SF, and before he's done he's likely to revitalize the short literary biography as well.
Wild fun and a capable grasp of the science that makes science fiction good aren't all there is to Swanwick. There is also great sadness in satire - Gulliver's Travels is one of the more morbid and depressing of such adventures - and Swanick's eye never waves from what might upset or dismay less challenging writes. Take The Dragons of Babel: In the grip of the monstrous war dragon, Will becomes hated by all his friends and neighbors for serving the dragon's dark purposes. Even after he rids his town of the dragon, the elders call a town meeting and ask him to leave. Even in making the right moral choice, Will is despised for his decision. We can't redeem ourselves, Swanwick is saying, we can only try to move on. They'll still hate us for what we did.
To paraphrase Whittaker Chambers, beside Swanwick's insatiable posing of the infinite question, most of his contemporaries' answers seem rather childish. Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He lives in Manhattan, and tumbls here. You can buy The Best of Michael Swanwick here. You can find his essay on George R.R. Martin's work here.
"Magnolia" - Apollo Sunshine (mp3)
"The Hotter, The Wetter, The Better" - Apollo Sunshine (mp3)
"Today is the Day" - Apollo Sunshine (mp3)