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.

Michael Swanwick: The Dragons of Babel

I came to this book in a roundabout manner. While I enjoyed Swanwick’s earlier novels In The Drift and Vacuum Flowers, his later ones Stations of the Tide and Jack Faust didn’t do it for me. But Swanwick published excerpts of this book in one of the SF magazines, and I enjoyed both of the ones I read, so I sought this out, only to find out that it took place in the same milieu as his novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (though it’s not a sequel), which I hadn’t read, mainly because I’m not a big fan of elves-and-dragons fantasy. So I read Daughter and thought it was, well, okay, but not great (I reviewed it here). Nonetheless, I picked this one up – and liked it a lot!

The high concept of the setting is that even a medieval fantasy setting would progress and go through the industrial revolution, and by the time of Dragons technology has reached something close to modern standards, with big cities, subways, and modern warfare alongside the fantastic creatures of fantasy. Class differences exist not just among individuals, but among different types of creatures (with elves being at the top, of course). Into this world is born Will, a young elf who is being raised in a woodland village until a dragon (basically a flying tank) from the ongoing war is wounded and crawls into Will’s village and takes over. The creature disrupts Will’s life so severely that he’s forced to leave the town, and he joins a pack of war refugees where he befriends a young girl, Esme, and an old confidence man, Nat. The trio make their way to the city of Babel, where Will joins a revolution, becomes an aide to a politician, and works with Nat to pull off what for Babel might be the ultimate confidence trick.

The Dragons of Babel is a coming-of-age story, of course, and also a traditional fantasy arc wrapped in a rags-to-riches story, but Swanwick crafts it so artfully that the clichés are just the structure on which the story is hung. A structure which is also largely episodic, which is why he could carve out pieces to publish in magazine form, and which also serves to mask the simpler structures.

Individual episodes are arresting. The opening sequence with the dragon is as tragic for Will as it is enabling of his character. He gains confidence by joining the mysterious Lord Weary in his revolution against the ruling powers, by working inside the political machine (the episode “A Small Room in Koboldtown” during this phase is a locked-room murder mystery as it could only happen in a fantasy world), and he has to grow beyond his mentor Nat and confront his own identity in order to reach the culmination of his story.

Swanwick’s writing style always has a hint of mythical wonder about it, but he can get down-to-Earth when he wants to, when he does more often here than in anything else I’ve read by him. Will is a fundamentally grounded, practical character who confronts the fantastic things in his life with level-headedness, even though he’s constantly dreaming of a better life for himself. He bridges the gap between the technological side of his world and the fantasy side, bringing everything together more successfully than in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

Altogether, Dragons is perhaps Swanwick’s most nuanced, and maybe best, novel. Swanwick seems to approach each novel differently, so it’s probably too much to hope that his next book will deliver more of the same. But it’s got me interesting in seeing where he goes from here.

Michael Swanwick: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

I’d owned this book for a while, but I’d rather burned out on Michael Swanwick by the time I bought it. Although he’s wonderful with imagery, I sometimes find his plots and characters to be lacking, and I couldn’t get into Stations of the Tide at all, even though it won the Nebula Award. However, I read a couple of excerpts of his new novel, The Dragons of Babel in Asimov’s and I enjoyed them a lot. Then I learned that it takes place in the same world as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and I had to go back and read that one before tackling the newer novel.

The central conceit of the world in the novel is it’s a fantasy world filled with all the traditional elves and dwarves and goblins and dragons, but that the fairy tale stories written about those creatures took place centuries ago, and in the present day this world has gone through its own industrial revolution, and today there are cities and weapons and schools and other trapping of our own modern culture, with magic and fantastic creatures integrated right into it.

The story’s heroine is Jane, a human girl among fantastic creatures, regarded as an oddity in a world that’s full of them. The novel opens with her working as a slave in a factory which builds iron dragons – sentient, flying tanks. Jane is on the edge of adolescence, and is starting to form thoughts of her own independence, although she’s somewhat behind her peers in this respect: Her friend Rooster is the nominal leader of the child workers at the factory, and has been trying to figure out how to escape or at least how to deal with some of their tormentors among the management for a long time. Other workers are happy merely to rise in the ranks among their own. Following one of Rooster’s plans, Jane gets singled out by the plant manager to do a favor for a high elf lady in the area, which leaves her ostracized by her peers. But she also is contacted by an old, forgotten dragon, number 7332, who has been imprisoned at the factory and also wishes to escape. Together they manage to achieve this goal.

The novel is told in several parts, although they’re not declared as such, but there are jumps between the major sections of story. Jane and the dragon settle near a town where Jane enrolls in high school, and the dragon goes quiescent. Jane isn’t a very good student, but aspires to become an alchemist. She also makes new friends of varying quality, and becomes involved in some local elvish customs. The last part of the novel sees Jane attending college and finding that pieces of her life seem to recreate themselves in her new environments with new players each time. She becomes more confident and gains more skills over time, and learns what 7332’s ultimate goals are for her, which are played out in the novel’s climax.

Swanwick’s novels always have a dreamlike quality to them, and Daughter certainly has that. There are even hints that it might all actually be a dream, but Swanwick is too crafty to come out and say that, and he leaves it up to the reader. This results in some allusions to the relationship between our world and Jane’s which I thought felt out-of-place in the novel. I’d have preferred that it have been played with the world it portrays being exactly what it appears, as I think the ambiguity adds nothing to the tale.

The story is of course a coming-of-age story, with Jane growing from an oppressed wallflower to a strong-willed and angry young woman, upset at how her being a human has left her in this second-class position (even though it confers a few advantages on her, too; for instance, some magical constructs work on magical creatures, but not on her). She’s a slightly pathetic character at the start, a little cowardly in her oppression, but with some inner strengths. These strengths come out over time as she stands up to increasingly more important and powerful people in pursuit of what she wants: A life of her own following her dreams. She has several romances with men who are all similar in some key ways, finds some friends and allies, as well as some adversaries. But she always seems to ultimately feel alone, and consequently she always has a certain kinship with 7332, despite the dragon’s frustrating and mercurial nature.

As much as I enjoyed Jane’s journey, I found its ending disappointing since it undercut a lot of her hard work in a relatively brief moment of emotion and show of force. For me the setting was the star of the book: While some commentary I’ve read about Daughter describes it as a melding of science fiction and fantasy, or an subversion of fantasy, I saw it more as applying some science fictional principles to a traditional fantasy setting: After all, there’s nothing that says that such a world couldn’t develop advanced science right alongside its impossible elements. Swanwick parcels out the interactions of these two slices of his world in small bits, and often subtly or obliquely; no wizards driving automobiles here, but characters considering the underlying principles of magic, or the haughty elves effectively forming the ruling caste of an economy driven by the creation of wealth. It’s a rich backdrop and there’s so much more that could be done with it – but Swanwick does quite a bit with it here in the service of the core story.

So yes, I was disappointed with the ending, and I wished Swanwick had chosen a course more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel. However, it was still a fun journey, and it’s whetted my appetite for reading The Dragons of Babel in its entirety.

Speed Reading

Last night I did something that’s very rare for me: I read a whole book in one evening. Specifically, I read Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed for my upcoming book discussion group. As I’ve said before, I’m quite a slow reader, usually plodding along at about 60 pages per hour, which means I can expect to spend about 7 hours going through a 400-page novel, the likes of which are common these days. Wild Seed is only about 280 pages, which means it would usually take me over 4 hours to get through it, but I finished it in about 3.

Okay, I did cheat a little bit, because I’ve read it before. I read the 4 in-print volumes in Butler’s Patternist series some years ago (I own a copy of the long-out-of-print volume, Survivor, but haven’t read it). For some reason I didn’t write reviews of the 4 books back when I read them. My recollection is that I thought they were okay but not terrific.

Which is pretty much what I thought of Wild Seed this time around: Okay but not terrific. The book concerns a pair of long-lived people, and their kin, who are all mutants with superhuman – mostly telepathic – powers. They actually seem very much similar to the comic book X-Men, only in this setting one of the long-lived characters, Doro, can jump between bodies (effectively killing any person whose body he inhabits), and is engaged in a long-term breeding program to create more people like himself. The title character, Anwanyu, is much younger, and is a shapeshifter and healer. The book is primarily about their relationship and the tension between them, as Doro expects everyone to bow to his will, while Anwanyu considers much of what Doro is doing to be abomination. The book has some powerful moments, but peters out at the end as the dramatic conclusion of their struggle is quite anticlimactic. (This is somewhat necessary as the book is a prequel to an already-existing series. But still.)

Anyway, although I did skim some of the more tedious bits (Butler often goes into a little discourse about the beckground of whatever new setting the characters are moving to, and then pretty much shoves all the background into, well, the background; there are also some less-than-illuminations digressions into the backstories of the two main characters), the book really was quite a quick read. I’m not really moved to re-read the rest of the series, although maybe I’ll tackle Survivor sometime soon to finish the arc.

Next up is Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. I’ve read a couple of stories recently in Asimov’s by Swanwick which I’ve enjoyed – especially “A Small Room in Koboldtown” – and I learned that they’re excerpts of his latest novel, The Dragons of Babel, which is a sequel to Daughter. So it seems like a good choice. What appealed to me about the stories is the setting: Traditional fantasy creatures (elves, goblins, trolls) whose world apparently continued developing beyond the medieval era and is now in an industrial age much like ours. A nifty idea.

I find Swanwick’s books to vary widely in quality. I liked The The Drift and Vacuum Flowers (both of which I reviewed here), but didn’t care much for either Stations of the Tide or Jack Faust. I’m hoping that these next books will be more like the former than the latter, even if I’m not generally a big fantasy fan.