Michael Swanwick is one of the most inventive, non-conforming writers on the market. Though starting his career with a fairly straight-forward novel (In the Drift), he has slowly and steadily turned his imagination and spirit loose, culminating most recently in the idea-explosion that is the Darger and Surplus novels. It is thus in short fiction that one finds Swanwick at his most focused and careful. And the relative limitations are beneficial. I’m on the fence, but I would listen to arguments that short stories are, in fact, Swanwick’s greatest asset. Tales of the Old Earth, Swanwick’s 2000 collection, is nineteen potential reasons.
Opening the collection is “The Very Pulse of the Machine”. An abstract riff (natch) on a Wordsworth poem, the story tells of the astronaut Martha and what happens after her vehicle has an accident on the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Io. Her teammate dying in the crash, Martha elects to attempt to drag the body across the moon to their base. Voices that are either the AI in the dead body’s vacsuit or in Martha’s head accompanying Martha every step of the way, things start to look dire no matter how much meth she huffs, the ground around her even seeming to come alive. In perhaps the best written yet most Weird story in the collection, “Mother Grasshopper” tells of the strange happenings to a young man part of a colony on a space grasshopper (yes, space grasshopper). Confronted by a magician/god one day, he is compelled to follow the man across the land, spreading pestilence and disease. A fortuitous meeting one day changes his direction, but perhaps not his will.
Inspired by Andy Duncan’s “Beluthahatchie” but also possessing a few drops of Jackie Brown and Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones”, “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” is a tale of the train to Hell. A young man who escaped a fire and brimstone fate now rides the rails as a train attendant. But he gets in a little bit of trouble when a certain passenger breaks the rules. “The Dead” is a straight-forward metaphor denouncing corporate disregard for humanism. Zombies standing in for the laid-off, the story tells of a businessman and his dealings with a particularly selfish manager. The selfishness portrayed in macabre fashion, the story’s message is clear.
A story that shouldn’t work on paper yet does very successfully in reality, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O” is a Jungian milieu of archetypes told across the breadth of human history. Its success achieved by sustained focus and vivid capture of one archetype (rebel woman in love with a man on a motorcycle), Swanwick captures the essence of Jung’s idea in vigorous, energetic form. Good story. A clash of the young and old in a science fictional context, “Ancient Engines” is a brief affair, and is essentially a conversation between an elderly man and a mechanically augmented young man in a bar. While nicely highlighting the fleetingness of the ‘latest technology’, it remains simplistic in the face of possibilities inherent to technological evolution. In another story cutting human ambition down to size, “The Wisdom of Old Earth” features a woman with a strong opinion of her own intelligence. Putting her in a tough science fictional situation, Swanwick shows evolution is not always an upward trajectory.
A unique and well-developed metaphor, “Radio Waves’ tells of a dead-man walking upside-down along roadway electrical wires to stay grounded. Seeking domestic redemption while putting off inevitably being sucked into the sky, it is a ghost story in only the technical sense, and full of real heart. An odd story that doesn’t reveal its conceit until the latter stages, “Microcosmic Dog” is a talking dog story in Truman Show fashion. About a woman living in New York City that isn’t quite New York City, when a friend leaves her a dog to take care of, life in the city becomes never the same. A Weird teleportation story, “Radiant Doors” (not to be confiused with “Radio Waves”), tells of a strange society and the immigration problem they are dealing with from another dimension. Not certain this is Swanwick’s most comprehensive story, but it does string along nicely.
The evolution of civilization in a tea cup, in “Ice Age” a husband and wife discover a mastodon frozen in one of the ice cubes in their freezer. Looking a little deeper into the frozen environement, they discover an ice age society developing, and before long an industrial evolution, and not long after… It is, of course, the endpoint of this arc of social evolution where Swanwick makes his point. Gimmicky but page-turning: how will it/us end? A kind of mini-Brave New World, “Wild Minds” is a spot of post-human humanism in which an unaugmented man (who also happens to be a murderer acquitted by a panel of future minds for being “too human”) meets an augmented woman, and the tension that ensues.
There is a dinosaur on the cover of the printing of Tales of Old Earth I read, and indeed a couple of the stories deploy the giant lizards in some manner. “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” is the story of the manager at a time travel station in the Cretaceous period who helps give tourists a glimpse of what dinosaur life was like. Swanwick would later expand the story into the novel Bones of the Earth, and is something that seems necessary given the bare bones (no pun intended), unpolished feel to the short storz. “Riding the Giganotosaur” is about a professor who undergoes a procedure to have the body of a gigantosaur and is sent back in time to study dinosaur behavior. Atavism ending up competing with the professor’s civilized side in a manner not unlike Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Swanwick portrays a duality of human nature in an overt metaphor.
In the end, Tales of Old Earth is a dynamic collection of short stories that displays Swanwick in bright light. Nearly every premise original and wholly imaginative, the writer supports his ideas with meaty prose and an unfettered freedom to take each creation wherever he would like, all the while managing to inject a strong does of humanism into most of the stories. Swanwick doesn't give a fuck about genre lines, but remains dedicated to maintaining relevancy--a very vibrant outlook. I daresay the best of the lot is “The Changeling’s Tale”, followed closely by “Mother Grasshopper”, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O”, “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, and “Radio Waves”, though there are many other very solid, worthwhile stories. Overall, an easily recommended and re-readable collection. Let the arguments for Swanwick’s short fiction being his best aspect roll in…
The following are the nineteen stories collected in Tales of Old Earth:
The Very Pulse of the Machine
Scherzo with Tyrannosaur
North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy
Riding the Giganotosaur
The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O
The Changeling's Tale
The Wisdom of Old Earth