Tachyon), is no exception.
Containing seventeen stories published between 2008 and 2014, Not So Much, Said the Cat, as the title hints, is more unpredictable stuff from Swanwick. Originally appearing in magazines and e-zines such as Postcripts, Asimov’s, Tor.com, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Clarkesworld, and such anthologies as Eclipse Four, Stories, Rogues, and Shadows of the New Sun, the stories cover a wide gamut of tastes and interests. Retold Norse to Grimm Bros fairy tales, measured and sedate science fiction to wild, post-human Darger & Surplus science fiction, flash fiction to political commentary, human-alien relations to Dickian sub-realities, haunted lakes to Weird scarecrows—a wide gamut, indeed.
After reflecting candidly and lively on his career to date, Swanwick kicks off the collection with “The Man in Grey.” Bearing something of Philip K. Dick’s “Adjustment Team,” it is the story of a woman saved from falling in front of a train by the titular character. What follows is a questioning of cosmology, free will, and whether the reality we perceive is indeed reality. Though better written than PKD, the premise is just a touch more trite. “The Dala Horse” is a bizarre fairy tale of science fiction/Norse mythology proportion. About a little girl, her talking backpack, and map, when the going gets tough—particularly with a mouthy troll—her attitude may not be enough. Good thing she packed her dala horse. A visceral story not for the feint of heart, “Passage of Earth” tells of Hank the county coroner and the alien corpse he's brought one night to do an autopsy on. Hank's academic trip through the thing's digestive tract ending up more personal than scientific, what starts as a lecture on alien biology becomes something quite peculiar—and much more than guts and glands.
Though borrowing an idea from Robert Silverberg's “Hawksbill Station,” “3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar” moves in its own direction. Flash fiction, it describes, exactly as the title hints, the reactions of a crew of a scientists trying to adapt to the idea they are trapped in the Mesozoic, their time travel having hit an irreversible glitch. Swanwick’s contribution to Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantino's anthology Stories, “Goblin Lake” takes a micro and macro look at storytelling through the lens of a Grimm Brothers-esque haunted lake. While perhaps a touch overt, it remains reflective. Riffing off his own novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter, “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” tells of Su-Yin, her trip through (surreal) hell, and the form she comes into upon exiting. The novel remains more complete, but Su-Yin’s journey is every bit as transitive.
In perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek story in the collection, “Libertarian Russia” pokes at the titular political ideal in the country which many would think defines it. A cross-country motorcyclist and hooker teaming up, they have the “political” experience of a lifetime at an abandoned highway restaurant. Diving into human-alien relations, “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .” describes the survivors of an attack that destroyed one of the universe's most beautiful cities. More complex than Barry Longyear’s “Enemy Mine,” Swanwick fills the interstices of his story with a wider spectrum of strange details and color. Sounding like a Tiptree Jr. selection, “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” is another story involving human and aliens, but one significantly less overt in its science fictional properties. Very well a story set in the late 19th and early 20th century when immigrants were flooding to America, the story of an American Irishman returned to the Emerald Isle to discover his roots is soft and touching where “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…” is edgy and vibrant.
Darger & Surplus are perhaps this reviewer’s least favorite flavor of of Swanwick, and in “Tawny Petticoats” the two scoundrels are up to new antics. Attempting to run a scam in a New Orleans prostitution district, wildness and hilarity ensue (I guess). The post-human future Swanwick portrays foregoing any pattern of underlying reality, one can only hang on for the ride. “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” Swanwick’s contribution to the Gene Wolfe tribute anthology Shadows of the New Sun, the tale takes us to the twin planets of The Fifth Head of Cerebrus. Contrary to “Tawny Petticoats”, the story shows off Swanwick’s ability to write at depth, in this case, in parallel but distinct examination of two girls of their world’s history, and subsequently, their identity as Wolfe did. A tragic love story, “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” tells of the fate of the brilliant Mariella. Graduating from university while still a teenager, it's clear she's meant for great things. PhD quickly under belt, she soon after makes a major breakthrough in physics, and finds the love of her life at the same time. The breakthrough, however, may have been too much.
In the end, Not So Much, Said the Cat is confirmation that, even in the latter phases of his career, Swanwick is still one of the most original acts on the scene. Short fiction as complementary to his dynamic style as his novel-length work, the stories skip and jump, sending stereotypes scurrying to the shadows. The base premises of some of the stories may be tried and true, but in Swanwick’s hands come across as something more, making any collection, including this one, richer and more dynamic for it.
The following are the seventeen stories selected for Not So Much, Said the Cat:
Introduction (by Michael Swanwick)
The Man in Grey
The Dala Horse
The Scarecrow’s Boy
Passage of Earth
3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar
Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown
The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree
From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .
For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again
Pushkin the American
An Empty House with Many Doors
The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin
The House of Dream