Michael Swanwick: Dancing With Bears

Subtitled “A Darger and Surplus Novel”, this is the first novel I know of about the two con men, the latter being a genetically engineered dog-man, and his fully-human partner. (Maybe Swanwick’s written some short works about them?) It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, in which our heroes have finagled their way into accompanying the Pearls of Byzantium, a group of enhanced women who are being presented to the Duke of Moscow as his brides. Ambushed in the wastelands on the way to Moscow, Surplus manages to get named the new ambassador from Byzantium, and the group picks up an energetic teenager who’s fallen in love with one of the Pearls, and a religious zealot.

Arriving in Moscow, the pair sets in motion a plan to enrich themselves, but they get caught up in a variety of machinations, both by the Pearls, and an assortment of locals who are plotting an overthrow of the Duke, behind all of which lurks an even more sinister plan to destroy all of humanity. The revolution arrives with much fanfare, chaos, and destruction.

I wonder if Dancing With Bears is named for the old saw (possibly a Russian proverb): “The wonder of a dancing bear is not that it dances well… but that it dances at all.” The book has plenty of dancing bears: Post-singularity entities disguised in various forms, Surplus and his gene-modified brethren, the Pearls, and the Duke himself. It’s a cornucopia of wonders, but set in a medieval-style world and told in the style of a fantasy, and thus very much in keeping with Swanwick’s usual work.

But while I was a big fan of Swanwick’s previous novel, The Dragons of Babel, I don’t think Bears is nearly as good. Fundamentally, while both books are set in fairly dark environments, Dragons transcends the darkness through the character of its protagonist, while Bears focuses largely on the two con men, who are worldly and cynical, entertaining in their way, but not characters you can really root for. Of the others, most of them are engineering their own complex (sometimes evil) plans, and only the boy, Arkady, feels particularly sympathetic. But he’s credulous if not downright stupid, and happens to luck into a point of redemption (and is just smart enough to recognize it), but it’s such an abrupt reversal from his earlier portrayal that it’s not very satisfying.

At its best, the book features many of Swanwick’s carefully-crafted scenes which feel like an excerpt from a fable. I especially enjoyed the bits where Darger was training another young wastrel the art and skills of being a con-man (this particular wastrel actually has the most satisfying story arc of the book). Darger, rather than Surplus, tends to have the more exciting adventures and more inventive escapes; I almost got the feeling he was supposed to be larger-than-life in this regard, but I’m not sure that’s what Swanwick was really going for.

Swanwick also heads full-speed into Tim Powers territory of torturing his characters, which is rather less enjoyable, although it does lend a sense of realism to the political environment of the city. There’s also a heavy dollop of sex and lust, often played for broad comedy.

While I appreciate the craft with which Swanwick constructed his world and set up the plot of the novel, it just didn’t have the heart that Dragons did, and the climax of the various threads was impressive but not entirely satisfying. And I think it does come down to the fact that Darger and Surplus were just not protagonists I could get behind.

Doctor Strange: Into the Dark Dimension

Doctor Strange: Into the Dark Dimension HC, by Roger Stern, Peter B. Gillis, Paul Smith, Bret Blevins, Mark Badger, Terry Austin & Steve Leialoha, Marvel, 2011

Roger Stern was one of the best writers in comics in the 1980s (he’s still good today, as his Captain America mini-series supplementing Ed Brubaker’s regular series show), and his 4-year run on Doctor Strange was his very best work (it was published bimonthly from 1981-1985 – remember when comics companies used to do that?). So it’s terrific to see Marvel reprint the end of his run in this handsome hardcover volume.

A brief recap: Doctor Stephen Strange was a brilliant but egotistical surgeon before a car accident wrecked his nerves, so he could never operate again. Wandering the Earth in search of purpose, he met The Ancient One, an eastern mystic who eventually took Strange as his apprentice. In the ensuing years, he grew to become Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, and master of the mystic arts, operating out of New York’s Greenwich Village to defend the world against mystical threats.

While many previous creative teams (Lee & Ditko, Englehart & Brunner, etc.) had written fine Strange stories, Stern topped them all, by mixing the cosmic with the personal. Strange became a richly characterized human being, as he lost his apprentice and lover, Clea, when he became romantically entwined with another woman, and he gained friends and allies on his adventures as well as in his household (his manservant, Wong, and his accountant, Sara, developed a romantic attachment). He had some pretty great artists, too, starting with Marshall Rogers, then Steve Leialoha, and then Paul Smith, the main artist in this volume.

This story opens with a story in which Strange helps Dane Whitman, The Black Knight, throw off his family’s curse, but the story quickly shifts when Strange realizes that Umar, the ruler of the Dark Dimension, has decided that he is masterminding the rebellion against her rule. He’s not, Clea is in fact behind it all, but her persistent attacks on him force him to take the fight to her. It’s a terrific story in which we see Clea develop more fully as a character, and with a satisfying victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat ending. The story showcases Strange’s humanity and empathy, a man who wields immense power, but who does so with conscience and wisdom. Other writers have often heavy-handedly returned to Strange as a man who achieves catharsis and enlightenment through his experiences, but Stern goes beyond that to show him as a fully mature, rounded individual, a man who still has personal and external challenges to face, but who is as much a role model as any of the mainstream superheroes who live in the spotlight that he avoids.

Stern is ably assisted by Paul Smith’s art. Smith had developed considerably from his earlier work on X-Men, but was not quite as fantastic as he would be later on The Golden Age. His stuff is nonetheless terrific. Bret Blevins does a pretty good job of aping his style in a single-issue story (itself quite good) prior to the main arc. All of their work looks terrific in this reprint, and the coloring is bright and vivid, complementing their styles perfectly.

Stern unfortunately left after the next-to-last issue collected here, and Peter B. Gillis – the series’ next regular writer – wrote the code to the Dark Dimension story, illustrated by Mark Badger. Badger’s sketchy (if not downright muddy) layouts and pencils have never appealed to me, and Gillis always seemed a very dark writer whose characterizations seemed a bit too simplistic, his stories a bit too convoluted. It’s a disappointing ending to the volume (plus it tied in to the lousy Secret Wars II series Marvel was printing at the time), and I’ve always wondered why Stern departed so abruptly.

That aside, the overall package is wonderful. I highly recommend giving it a try, and if you like it, go back and try out the rest of Stern’s run (mostly quite affordable in your back issue bins), starting with Doctor Strange vol 2, #48, and running through #67 (the last issue before this volume). There are many great issues in there, and I guarantee you’ll love it.

Bumps in the Road

Last weekend we had our second house guests in our new house, as K and her new boyfriend C visited for a day and a half (two nights) at the end of a vacation they’d be on. We had a good time, with dinner at Cascal, and a visit to the Computer History Museum. I hadn’t been to the museum since before they opened their spiffy new exhibit hall. While the artifacts on display haven’t greatly changed (other than lengthier descriptions and some multimedia presentations), the big change is that they were able to spread out the exhibits for the personal computer era from a couple of racks of hardware to several rooms of material. Well worth visiting, as always.

Two sets of house guests in two weekends is a little exhausting, though, since it means we spent a lot of time cleaning and preparing for their arrival. We enjoyed having them, but it feels like it’s been quite a while since I’ve had the time to keep up with hobbies and even home maintenance.

That was the most fun “bump” in recent days. The rest are not any fun.

Blackjack has been more subdued lately, and Debbi and I have both been worried about him. He had his regular chemo treatment on Thursday, and the vet said she agreed that something seems off, but it’s nothing she could diagnose, and that we should keep an eye on him. He did have one of his more difficult chemo treatments right before our first guests arrived, and it might be that all the visitors has thrown him off and he’s just feeling tired of change himself. Fortunately, these last couple of days he’s seemed perkier than he had the previous week, so maybe he’s getting over it. But we’re still worrying about him.

The other big bump has been that we have ants in our house. The tiny, black kind who send out little scouts and then swarm when they find things. The weird thing is that they started out in our master bedroom, and have gradually made their way downstairs. They’re in the kitchen now, and found the cat food yesterday. We’ve been dealing with them as best we can, amidst everything else we’ve been doing, but it’s been massively stressful. As with many such problems, my first concern is the cats: The ants aren’t really a danger to the cats, but I don’t want to use a treatment that will hurt them. If it was just us humans, I’d be more likely to call an exterminator to nuke the buggers.

Here’s what we’ve tried:

  1. We started by getting a soy-based spray and spraying it along the base boards of the bedroom, which stopped them from coming in for about a week.
  2. We bought some Grant’s Ant Stakes, which seemed to eventually get rid of the ants in the immediate vicinity of the stake, but they have not shown a huge amount of interest in them, so they haven’t done their intended job of destroying the colony.
  3. We’ve treated a few spots outside with a spray insecticide, which certainly dealt with the problem there, but doesn’t help indoors, since I don’t want the cats to be exposed if we can avoid it.
  4. I’ve caulked a couple of places where they were getting in, but I don’t think we can caulk every opening.
  5. Finally, after reading an article by my friend J.D., yesterday we deployed some Terro bait traps (which I’d previously picked up but not tried), which is another “kill the nest” treatment. This one the ants are quite interested in, and we’re hopeful that we’ll have J.D.’s experience and see the ants go away over the next couple of days. Cross your fingers for us that it works.

If the Terro does work, then we’ll investigate more perimeter defense to see if we can keep them from coming back.

While I don’t really hate ants, seeing them swarm around the Terro baits makes my skin crawl. I just don’t want them in the house. I can’t recall ever living anywhere that ants were a problem – it’s weird that we never had a problem with them at the townhouse, which is only half a mile away. But maybe ants are just a problem everyone has to deal with around here, and we just got lucky. I don’t know.

I thought I was dealing with adjusting to our new home pretty well, but the ants have really thrown a wrench into it. It sucks.

A smaller issue is that one of our carbon monoxide detectors (which are now required by law in California homes) beeps occasionally, and the other night about 2 am it decided to beep multiple times, but not persistently, and not in any pattern that the instructions said meant anything. So after checking things out, I removed the batteries, and put fresh ones in in the morning. No more beeps since then, but it’s annoying. (One friend on Facebook called this the “pull me off the wall and throw me in a drawer beep”.)

Lastly, we’ve started moving on selling the townhouse. My agent says it’s in good shape, and he was impressed with some of the things the HOA has done over the last decade to stay up to code. We’re doing the necessary improvements (such as painting and recarpeting, things we probably would have done soon even if we hadn’t moved), and hopefully it’ll go on the market in the next month or so. Other than a few miscommunications, this has been rather fun; but amidst everything else that’s been going on it’s been just one more thing to take care of when I’m already pretty stressed out.

Overall, I’m hoping we’ll have good progress on the ants in the next couple of days, and that my stress over them will go way down.

House Guests

This past weekend we had our first house guests at the new house: Debbi’s sister Dianne and bro-in-law Shawn flew out on Saturday. Shawn was out here for business, and Dianne tagged along to see her favorite older sister; they hadn’t been out here to visit since before Debbi and I started dating. Now, this wasn’t a new meeting for me; Debbi’s family and mine live pretty close to each other, so whenever we go back to visit our families, we each see the other’s, although we each spend most of our time with our own families. But I know Dianne and Shawn fairly well by this point. Our friends Lisa and Michel have gone back to visit them with Debbi a couple of times, too. But them coming out to visit us was a novelty, as they’re usually so busy with their kids that they don’t often travel.

They flew in Saturday afternoon, and after giving them a tour of the house, we took them out to Hobee’s for a late lunch since they apparently didn’t eat much on the way out. Then Lisa, Michel and their kids came by for a few hours and we played with Isabella in our yard, trading off running around with her. Shawn was showing her some soccer moves. Otherwise we just hung out for the day, picking up dinner to eat at home, since they were pretty zonked from their flight and the time change, and they turned in around 9:30. I think this is the first time I’ve ever had more than one house guest at a time, so they were able to take advantage of the fact that we have a queen-sized bed in our guest room now, rather than the single-person futon I had at the townhouse (although that futon is still in the living room, and is one of Blackjack’s favorite places to hang out, looking out the front window).

Sunday we drove over to the coast and had Sunday champagne brunch at the Moss Beach Distillery, sitting on their patio for a while afterwards. We didn’t actually go down to dip our feet in the Pacific Ocean, but I did stop off at the coast trail to get a different look at the ocean. Then we drove to the other side of the bay area, and hit a couple of Livermore wineries in the afternoon before coming back home. A lot of driving, but fun! After dinner (at Vive Sol) we went into downtown Mountain View for a little shopping and to show them our downtown.

Monday and Tuesday Shawn worked, but I took Monday off and Debbi, Dianne and I drove around Silicon Valley in the morning and early afternoon. Shawn finished up early that day and we headed up to San Francisco for ice cream at Ghirardelli. We hit a couple other places (like an Apple Store), but it was cold and foggy in the city, so we didn’t stay too long, and got home before dark.

It was back to work for me on Tuesday. Somehow I cleverly scheduled a meeting for 5 pm after forgetting that Tuesday was the baseball All-Star Game, but I got home during the second inning. We got take-out from FJL and watched the game.

Wednesday morning the three of them got up to oh-god-thirty to take Dianne to the airport, and Shawn headed off to work an hour after I finally got up, and he flew to LA later that day (hopefully he avoided carmageddon on his flight out).

It was great to see them, and to break in the guest room at the house. The cats gradually warmed up to them – Roulette even gave Shawn some attention (and she’s getting a little more adjusted to the downstairs as time goes on). Hopefully they can come out again sometime!