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.