The Cultural Gutter

going through pop culture's trash since 2003

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Same Tools, Different Project

James Schellenberg
Posted January 30, 2012

With killer robots, underground societies, international con artists (one a man, one a genetically engineered dog), and a very dangerous far future Moscow, what could possibly go wrong?

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.

Comments

One Response to “Same Tools, Different Project”

  1. Same Tools, Different Project | Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit
    February 5th, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    [...] FULL ARTICLE This entry was posted in Literature. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Big Muscle Tussle: Vengeance of Hercules [...]

Leave a Reply





  • The Book!

  • Support The Gutter

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    “To celebrate the 25th anniversary of [Mystery Science Theater 3000]’s national debut, Wired presents an oral history of the greatest talk-back show ever made. It all begins in the late ’60s in rural Wisconsin, where there was this guy named Joel, not too different from you or me…” Read it here. (Thanks, Less Lee!)

    ~

    The fashions of The Cosby Show are reviewed at Huxtable Hotness.

    ~

    Over at Teleport City, Keith takes a look at live-action and animated adaptations of Takao Saito’s manga, Golgo 13.

    ~

    Friend of the Gutter, Todd from Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! joins the Pop Offensive to share two hours of fine global pop. Listen here.

    ~

    At Monkey See, Libby Hill considers RuPaul’s Drag Race and the World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night Raw. “To compare WWE’s Monday Night Raw to RuPaul’s Drag Race may seem like an easy punch line to those who dismiss both as lowbrow entertainment pitched to niche audiences. But those who indulge in both (almost assuredly a very small sliver of that particular Venn diagram) know better than to reject the notion out of hand.” (via @kalaity)

    ~

    Tin House has published an edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness illustrated by Matt Kish, an interesting follow-up to Kish’s project, Moby-Dick In Pictures; One Drawing For Every Page. See more of Kish’s work here.

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: