Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review of Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick had his first short story published in 1980, and in the three and a half decades since, if anything, has proven himself to be one of speculative fiction’s least predictable writers. For any reader who has spent at least a few years in the field and begun to discern the formulas much of genre adheres to, this comes as a blessing. Forever thinking laterally, one simply never knows what they're going to get with a new Swanwick offering. His latest, the 2016 collection Not So Much, Said the Cat (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,, 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
Goblin Lake
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
Libertarian Russia
Tawny Petticoats
Steadfast Castle
Pushkin the American
An Empty House with Many Doors
The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin
The House of Dream


  1. I'm looking forward to this and have been, since it was announced. Swanwick is one of the top three short story writers (in my opinion), together with Gene Wolfe and Jeffrey Ford, putting Neil Gaimon to fourth place. Half of his novels are really great, and while the other half had great premises, ideas or moods, they couldn't hold my interest for novel length. But at short story length Swanwick shines.
    I know the stories from the Wolfe tribute and Gaiman and Sarrantino's anthology and I'm looking forward to the others.

    1. I like your picks for top short story writers. In that group I would also include Elizabeth Hand, Paul Di Filippo, Andy Duncan, Ian Macleod, and Kij Johnson - with a few more close behind.

      I imagine Swanwick's Bones of the Earth falls into the latter category. ;) What's your take on Darger & Surplus?

  2. Actually, I enjoyed Bones of the Earth. It was a quick read and entertaining, if not very memorable. But I really like the Darger & Surplus books. Curiously enough, I didn't read Dancing with Bears for over a year after I got it, even though I liked the short stories featuring the two. Once I read it, I couldn't understand why I deferred reading it. But I amended that with Chasing the Phoenix, starting as soon as I held it in my hands.
    I really liked Jack Faust and, of course, Stations of the Tide. I never finished Vacuum Flowers and have to admit that I only liked about the first hundred pages of The Iron Dragon's Daughter (and thus haven't read Dragons of Babel yet).
    And when I read "Mummer Kiss" I thought he should have turned that into a novel ... and then found out that he did. But compared to the story I found it lacking.

    I haven't read much of Elizabeth Hand's short fiction, but from what I have read I agree, she is fabulous. The others are on the TBR list.

    1. Interesting that you should enjoy the chaos of Darger & Surplus, yet not the chaos of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. :) I like the bounce and spin of Darger & Surplus, but I'm ultimately left empty by their stories as I can't perceive anything of significance beneath the surface. The Iron Dragon's Daughter, however, beneath its bounce and spin, is the story of a young woman slowly coming into responsibility for her own life through a series of personal problems, drug addiction, broken relationships, and other atypical issues facing fantasy characters. But maybe I'm missing something about Darger & Surplus?

  3. No, you're absolutely right. I just absorb Darger & Surplus as entertainment. A bit of farce, some comedy of manners. And you're right about Iron Dragon's Daughter too; it just didn't click for me. Maybe it wasn't the right time and frame of mind for me to read it. But back then, I felt it would have worked better for me as a novella or novelette than stretched to novel length.