Michael Swanwick: The Chameleon Eludes the Net

This essay originally appeared as a foreword to Moon Dogs. It has been altered slightly to bring it up to date. Copyright © 2000 Gardner Dozois, the editor of Asimov's. Used with permission.

One of the most popular and respected of all the new writers who entered the field in the '80s, Michael Swanwick made his debut in 1980 with two strong and compelling stories, "The Feast of St. Janis" and "Ginungagap," both of which were Nebula award finalists that year, and which were both selected either for a Best of the Year anthology or for that year's annual Nebula Awards volume - as auspicious a debut as anyone has ever made, even in a field known for lightning rises to prominence.

Swanwick is a chameleonic writer, difficult to pin down as belonging firmly to one aesthetic camp or another, although attempts have been made to claim him for various movements over the years. He writes everything from hard-science to Tolkienesque fantasy, but puts his own unique spin on everything he writes. During the '80s, during the Cyberpunk Wars, most critics included him in the cyberpunk camp, although the cyberpunks themselves never really seemed to accept him as One Of Them, in spite of his famous collaboration with William Gibson on "Dogfight," and in spite of the fact that his novel Vacuum Flowers is usually listed as part of the cyberpunk cannon by outside critics who are not themselves cyberpunks - and indeed, whatever it was that he was doing that made him appear to some to be writing cyberpunk, he was doing it on his own in stories such as "Ginungagap" long before the cyberpunks themselves were publishing much that looked like cyberpunk, certainly long before the publication of Gibson's Neuromancer in 1985. So it was a matter of convergent evolution rather than influence, I think, as far as Swanwick's relationship to cyberpunk is concerned. Similarly, Swanwick is now widely accepted as having written one of the two main "Post-Cyberpunk" works with Stations of the Tide (the other is Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash) - but if you go back and look at works such as "Ginungagap," you can see that he was writing stuff that resembles "post-cyberpunk" then, before the Cyberpunk Revolution had even really gotten underway. So pinning him down to one of these categories is rather like trying to catch fog in a net.

Although recognizable traces of the influence of the work of writers such as Jack Vance, Cordwainer Smith, Samuel R. Delany, Brian W. Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Howard Waldrop, Walter M. Miller, Roger Zelazny, and perhaps even John Varley (although Varley started publishing only a few years before Swanwick himself did; influences turn over fast in the science fiction field!), can be seen in Swanwick's work, Swanwick has absorbed these influences and transmuted them into his own voice, producing work unlike anything that any of those writers would have produced.

In fact, one Swanwick story is rarely much like any other Swanwick story, a trait he shares with other chameleonic writers such as Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, and Robert Reed. A restless, tireless, and intensely ambitious writer, always looking for new challenges and even-steeper hills to climb, always upping the literary ante on himself, Swanwick has rarely been satisfied to work any one patch of literary ground for long.

In the last nineteen years, as one of the most prolific and consistently inventive of all the field's short-story writers, he has stayed in the public eye, and on major award ballots, with intense and powerful stories that explore every corner of the genre: he's taken us to a hard-edged, high-tech future in stories such "Griffin's Egg," "Trojan Horse," "Snow Angles," the aforementioned "Dogfight" and "Ginungagap," "The Dead," "The Mask," "Wild Minds," and "Moon Dogs"; he's taken us to the furthest reaches of the solar-system in stories such as "Archaic Planets: Nine Excerpts from the Encyclopedia Galactica" (with Sean Swanwick) and "The Very Pulse of the Machine," which won him a Hugo Award in 1999; to the far-future in stories such as "The Wisdom of Old Earth," "Mother Grasshopper" (which takes place on a planet-sized grasshopper, one of the strangest milieus in science fiction history),"The Blind Minotaur," and "The City of God"; to the literal end of the world in stories like the subtle and surreal "The Edge of the World," which won him a Theodore Sturgeon Award in 1990; to the creation of enigmatic new worlds in "Covenant of Souls"; and on beyond the world as we the living know it for a bizarre and harrowing vision of life-after-death in "Radio Waves," which won him a World Fantasy Award in 1996; he's written vividly about human relationships with The Alien in stories such as "A Midwinter's Tale" and "Ancestral Voices"; he's spun time-paradox webs of bleak and elegant complexity in stories such as "Radiant Doors" and "Scherzo for Tyrannosaur," which won him another Hugo Award in 2000; he's played tricky, mindbending games with Reality in "Microcosmic Dog," "Foresight," "Walking Out," and "The Transformation of Philip K."; he's dealt with the search for immortality, and the price you have to pay for it, in "Ancient Engines"; he's taken us to Alternate Worlds in "Mummer Kiss," "In Concert," and "The Feast for Saint Janis"... and he has mixed genres with fearless abandon and verve as well, forming fascinating new hybrids of science fiction and fantasy in stories such as "The Changeling's Tale," "The Dragon Line," "Cold Iron," "Golden Apples of the Sun," "North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy," and "The Man Who Met Picasso."

His versatility and invention are great enough to enable him to collaborate successfully with writers as radically different as William Gibson, Jack Dann, Gardner Dozois, and Avram Davidson - in the case of the posthumous collaboration with Davidson, where he took a fragment Davidson had left uncompleted at the time of his death and turned it into a completed, living story ("Vergil Magus: King Without Country"), Swanwick accomplished the amazing feat of being able to match Davidson's erudite, recursive, ornate, complex literary style well enough that critics have not been able to figure out where Davidson's prose leaves off and Swanwick's begins, a feat that perhaps only two or three other writers working in the genre today might have been able to accomplish (Or Maybe Not, as Davidson used to say); in the case of his might- just- as- well- have- been- posthumous collaborations with me, he breathed new life and vitality into long-dead story fragments that had languished in a filing cabinet for years, and once again did it with such skill and dexterity that it is nearly impossible to tell which sections of the stories I originally wrote and which sections Michael wrote nearly twenty years later.

The number of writers who have ever achieved that level of professional skill, in the entire history of the genre, can be counted without running through the fingers of both hands.

At first, Swanwick's reputation as a novelist lagged behind his reputation as a short story writer, with his first novel, In The Drift - published in 1985 as part of Terry Carr's resurrected Ace Specials line, along with first novels by William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Lucius Shepard - largely ignored by the critics, and panned by some of them. His second novel, though, the critically-acclaimed Vacuum Flowers, caused a stir, and with his third and perhaps best-known novel, Stations of the Tide, which won him a Nebula Award in 1991, he established himself firmly as among the vanguard of the hot new novelists of the '90s. His next novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a finalist for both the World Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award (a unique distinction!), explored new literary territory on the ambiguous borderland of science fiction and fantasy, and has been hailed by some critics as the first example of an as-yet still nascent subgenre called "Hard Fantasy" (sort of a mix between the Dickensian sensibilities of "steampunk," high-tech science fiction, and traditional Tolkienesque fantasy). His most recent novel, Jack Faust, a sly reworking of the Faust legend that explores the unexpected impact of technology on society, blurs genre boundaries even more, and has garnered rave reviews from nearly every source from The Washington Post to Interzone. Although his last few novels seemed to be taking him away from science fiction (and perhaps even away from conventional genre fantasy) toward that vaguely defined territory that might be described as "American Magic Realism," or perhaps "Postmodernism," I doubt that he will ever entirely abandon the field - at least some of his short fiction remains solidly centered here, and, in fact, falls under the heading of rigorous and ingeniously worked-out "hard science"...and his new novel, currently underway, features time-travellers and some very hungry dinosaurs, core SF themes ... although no doubt, in Swanwick's hands, they are due to have some unexpected changes rung on them!

Swanwick's other books include Griffin's Egg, one of the most brilliant and compelling of modern-day Moon-colony stories. His short fiction has been assembled in Gravity's Angels, Slow Dancing Through Time (a collection of his collaborative short work with other writers), A Geography of Unknown Lands, Moon Dogs, Puck Aleshire's Abecedary, and Tales of Old Earth. His critical articles have been collected in The Postmodern Archipelago. Swanwick lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter, and their son Sean.

At any one time in the history of science fiction, there are perhaps seven or eight writers who are vital to the evolution of the genre; gather those writers all together in the same room, throw a bomb into that room, and you wipe out at a stroke much of the potential of the genre's future, forcing SF into a radically different, and probably markedly inferior, timeline. Let's hope that Swanwick stays away from rooms that are about to have bombs thrown into them, because right at the moment he is one of those seven or eight writers, someone doing vital and seminal work, and I have a feeling that, given luck, he will be one of the factors shaping the evolution of SF well into the new century that lies before us.

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