In Michael Swanwick’s latest novel, Dancing with Bears, I wouldn’t say things go wrong, per se, but more that the bits and pieces, rollicking and picaresque as they are, don’t add up to what you might expect. Let me take a few steps back to explain.
Swanwick is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer; in particular, he has written scores of short stories, and I would recommend any of them from across his prolific career. They are polished, jam-packed with fun science fictional (or fantastical) ideas, and reward a casual reader with eye-popping spectacle and a more literary reader with beautiful prose and something to think about later. If I could only recommend a handful, I would point to the following: “Griffin’s Egg,” a scifi tale set on a polluted and war-stricken lunar base (war by means of messing with your enemies’ heads); “Mother Grasshopper,” about a Chiang-esque interstellar grasshopper (!); and a third story I’ll mention in a moment.
I have to say, though, that I run a little cold on Swanwick’s novels. The only one I would recommend, without reservation in the same way as his short stories, is an early book, Stations of the Tide, which I liked quite a lot.
I’ve pondered this split for a while, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not actually the right audience for Swanwick. This mismatch is not as obvious in the case of his short stories, where the brevity of the format conceals it, but in his longer works, I start to drift away. What is going on?
I think it has to do with what Swanwick is attempting to do with his books. And I’ll argue by extreme case. Swanwick is an admirer of Gene Wolfe – on his blog, Swanwick recently called Wolfe “the greatest living writer in the English language”. I’ve read my share of Wolfe’s books, and they always leave me puzzled. They are vivid and interesting in a way that is true to science fiction or fantasy, but I get the sense that Wolfe is using those familiar genre tools to construct a different project entirely. A few years ago, I read through Wolfe’s New Sun series, and came away with more questions than answers. And I suppose that’s part of the point… that Wolfe is interrogating the genre rather than (or in addition to) creating a genre piece of his own.
I guess what it comes down to is this: I like that kind of critical reinvention/interrogation of science fiction and fantasy, but I’m not sure that it has enough narrative oomph to sustain a novel. More specifically: it does not have enough oomph for me as a reader, a distinction which is perhaps implied by this review format but is worth reemphasizing. I have a fondness for science fiction and fantasy books because they generally have a strong story hook. A short story can function with a much different structure, relying on, say, an impression or mood, or a puzzle with accompanying epiphany.
To bring the conversation back to Swanwick: I just re-read The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and picked up its sequel, The Dragons of Babel, for the first time. The books are clearly a slap in the face for shoddy epic fantasy; they are brilliantly written, and spend a lot of narrative energy deconstructing fantasy cliches, of which there is, unfortunately, still no shortage. So I admire this aspect of the books, but… let’s just say I’m looking for a mixture of admiration and fondness, the head and the heart, not just one or the other.
Another possibility for this long-short split comes to mind. Maybe the material that Swanwick chooses for his novels differs from his short stories, in a fairly substantial way. To truly test this case would require a short story either expanded into a novel or given a sequel in novel form.
And here we go! “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, one of his absolute best stories, winner of the Hugo Award, had two short story sequels, and now a novel, Dancing with Bears, featuring the same characters, giving us plenty of grounds for comparison.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy either, as this turns out to be a bit of a moving target. I found Dancing with Bears, while not quite the adventuresome thrill ride a summary of it might imply, a much more pleasing read than The Dragons of Babel, which in turn was not as bleak and formalistic as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.
Ironically, I think this whole exercise has revealed more about me as a reader than Swanwick as a writer. Strangely enough, Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide is probably his most Gene Wolfe-ian book, resembling nothing so much as Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and I would recommend both books. They are both greatly intricate puzzle pieces, and fairly short!
Swanwick’s blog, Flogging Babel, is actually quite interesting – he was asked by his publisher to start writing it a few years ago as a publicity tool for the publication of The Dragons of Babel, and he’s kept up a steady schedule of posts ever since. Here’s a good post he wrote recently about polishing the opening of your story or novel.