Friday, July 29, 2011

Michael Swanwick

Vacuum flowers
Called cyberpunk or space opera but really this is indescribable, a full on plunge into white hot imagination and political outrage tackling ideas of identity(most characters have several),goverment(a satire of nearly all goverment hypocrisy of human past,present, and future),reality and the other essential messes of life. Humor, terrific characters,scary speculation on technology, and full sense of wonder, also the weirdest "Wizard of OZ" allusion I have ever read (an extra point for including Kobo Abe in the great lost works of literature of Earth..don't ask)...there seems to be about hundred idea per page in this book. Swanwick may be a match for his heroes Gene Wolfe and Pynchon if the rest of his oeuvre it equal to this book. Also, star trek's the borg and the matrix owe him royalties and an apology for simplifying his ideas with their hollywood morality.

Tales of Old Earth
Swanwick is a terrific,fully realized short story writer. This collection is cornucopia of beautiful and terrifying ideas. Almost all the stories deal with the idea of death and dying but don't expect simple morbidity, but surreality and black humor. Highlights include The very pulse of the machine, Radiant doors,the wisdom of old earth Radio Waves, Microcosmic Dog, Walking out, The Dead, and Mother Grasshopper. Fans of Borges, PKD, Kelly Link need to check out this collection.

Stations of the Tide

Despite the sci fi suit this book sometimes wears, this is a full on plunge into surrealism. A story of shape changing, clones, virtual reality, a decaying dying planet, a pastiche of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and other things told in explosion of images straight from the magic realism camp(minus most pretense of "reality"). A paranoid stacking of incidents like Pynchon and diseased and demented characters like Kafka. This is one very literary and mind blowing novel, kind of "Crying of Lot 49" meets Gene Wolfe's "Fifth Head of Cerberus".

Remember that urban legend of razor blades hidden in Halloween treats? Swanwick does the literary equivalent of this, creating a fantasy world that includes all our myths and folklore along with our shadowy impulses and iniquities. A wonderful skewering of the hero’s quest that lingers at the heart of all traditional fantasy, this follows the picaresque adventures of Will le Fay as he moves through surreal set pieces on his journey to be king. All traditions are scorned and you get stories on stories and ambiguous, evocative images. Malevolent cyborgs, imaginary and real wars, world as the dream of a hermaphrodite, the tower of Babel, detective tales, trickster tales, and plenty of baudy humor. Also find The Iron Dragon's Daughter which this is a continuation of.

The Dog Said Bow-Wow
A really fun collection by Swanwick, for the most part lighter in tone than his death haunted collection Tales of the Old Earth. These tales use tropes of science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and trickster tales but plays with them and the reader’s expectation of the story. There is great range from dark jokes, pastoral visions, to epic battles. Highlights include all the Darger and Surplus tales (three of them…I hope Swanwick makes of novel on them), who are con men in a flamboyant bioengineering crazed future, following a computer based disaster that is hinted at, that combines our collective myths and history with future shock to craft surreal, dreamlike vision of future London, Paris, and Arcadia. “Slow Life” reads almost like rewrite of his classic “Very Pulse of the Machine”, opening it to a new range of colors. “The Skysailor’s Tale” which could be a lost chapter from Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon or Against The Day is bizarre steampunk fantasia riddled with remorse and dread of our history’s bloodshed. “Legions of Time” reminds me of 30’s pulp fiction (and “Metropolis”) and also Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories. And of special note is “Urdumheim” a bizarre creation myth combining elements of the Old Testament, Tower of Babel, and other Middle Eastern myths in a story almost nonstop invention and frightening beauty. This is one of the best things I have read by Swanwick.

Best of Swanwick
I agree with the title. Even when one of these stories is not to my taste I still respect the construction. Then when everything hits right I feel Swanwick can make concoctions like no else, as shown by such masterful and bizarre events like “The Very Pulse of the Machine”, “Mother Grasshopper”, and “The Dog Said Bow Wow.” The heart and soul of his work is in these short stories more than his sometimes messy novels (some of which I like a lot). One theme that he definitely handles well is the acceptance of death and the many permutations this metaphysical moment can represent. But he is never gloomy even when it’s presented in something like the menacing “The Very Pulse of the Machine”, you still wonder whether this about death, an embrace, or an act of faith.

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