"An Episode of Stardust"
"The Skysailor’s Tale"
"Legions in Time"
"The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport"
"The Bordello in Faerie"
"The Last Geek"
"Girls and Boys Come Out to Play"
"A Great Day for Brontosaurs"
"Dirty Little War"
"A Small Room in Koboldtown"
Michael Swanwick‘s new collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow contains sixteen pieces ranging in length from short stories to novelettes, virtually all of which were first published between 2001 and 2007 (principally in Asimov’s Science Fiction). Of Swanwick’s amazing five Hugos for fiction, he won three for stories in this collection ("The Dog Said Bow-Wow," "Slow Life," and "Legions in Time"). Two others were also nominated for the prize ("’Hello,’ Said The Stick" and "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport").
This seems to fit in perfectly with the faintly Elizabethan setting, but this is not a simple matter of a reversion to past forms. Even in the absence of modern information technology (though relics of it pop up in the most curious ways), biotechnology has made enormous strides, evident not least of all in the fashions worn at Queen Gloriana’s London court—bioluminiscent gowns, "boots and gloves cut from leathers cloned from their own skin."
It also lets dogs say far more than "bow-wow," an expression the protagonist ironically and appropriately never uses. Sir Blackthrope Ravenscairn de Plus—Surplus for short—is not merely modified, but fully anthropomorphized, which permits him to be a charming rogue and gentlemanly con artist rather than, for instance, a conflicted, anguished Frankenstein in the manner of Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius—to which Surplus’s name may or may not be a reference. (Incidentally, true to Surplus’s character as a charming rogue, he gets up to activities that Stapledon’s censors pointedly refused to permit him to publish, and not the only time the sexual content in this collection might appeal to readers with unconventional fetishes.)
As soon as he steps off his ship in London, Surplus recruits a shady local named Aubrey Darger for an "enterprise," involving Surplus’s dubious diplomatic credentials and a critical piece of forbidden technology. Naturally, the scheme spins wildly out of control, but not necessarily in the way one might expect, and it all proves to be as entertaining as its premise promises. Fans of this story will be pleased to know that Surplus and Darger crop up twice more in this collection, specifically in "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport," reviewed below, and "Girls and Boys Come Out to Play" (which Tangent previously reviewed in its coverage of the July 2005 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction).
The story is competently executed (it was the Hugo award winner for best novelette in its year), and I found the opening particularly elegant. Nonetheless, this being the kind of story that it is, "Slow Life" struck me as a bit short on the touches that make Swanwick’s tales as memorable for me as they are.
The narrator shortly learns just why the trikes have come to Vermont—and makes his plans accordingly, which may have you thinking you know exactly where the story is going to go. By the end, Swanwick will probably prove you wrong.
The skysailor, William, is an old man, telling his son the story of his father’s burial by the fireside (or at least, starting to). The poignant tale of William’s adolescence reads smoothly enough, then gives way to a fragmented narrative of his journeys after stowing away aboard the airship Empire, which are as much period fantasy as steampunk or alternate history. The incidents themselves are interesting, but the latter part feels hurried and underwritten in places, which only makes the connection between one bit and another seem all the more haphazard. In all fairness, we realize early on that our narrator is not just imperfectly reliable, but loses the thread of his story pretty easily—as might an easily distracted man looking back across the expanse of the past—but I couldn’t help wondering if that part of the story didn’t simply need more polishing. This is not to say that the story fails by any means, only that after William’s taken flight, it is more enjoyable at the level of its bits than as a coherent whole.
"The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" (mild spoiler warning) picks up right where "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" left off, Surplus and Darger arrived in Paris, and the viridian mansion ("self-cleansing, self-renewing, even self-supporting"—would that such homes actually existed) of a particular "haute bourgeois," Monsieur d’Etranger, a man with one foot in the grave intent on buying himself immortality by recovering the Eiffel Tower—lost at the end of the Utopian era in the fight against the virtual demons. Surplus and Darger, naturally, have convinced him that they can get it for him.
"Cat," happily, proves not to be a formulaic tweaking of the elements that made "Bow-Wow" so much fun, but instead inverts a couple and brings in plenty of new ones, the flow of invention unabated (as would also be the case in the similarly enjoyable "Girls and Boys Come Out to Play"). Notably, while Surplus dominated the action in the first story, Darger’s role is much more prominent (it can hardly be any other way given the particulars), and he proves to be a character with his own interest, rather than just someone for the talking dog to talk to. Lovers of Paris might also be pleased to know that at least as Swanwick tells this story, Paris still retains its romance centuries hence.
"The Bordello in Faerie"
In "The Last Geek" the "geek" in question is a carnival geek, and specifically the last practitioner of his profession. Precisely because of the bit of the past he is regarded as embodying, he is proclaimed as "American as John Wayne or Buzz Aldrin . . . a living cultural treasure and an acknowledged national icon" who is feted at a university where he arrives as a guest speaker to tell his story and do his best. This brief tale struck me as an amusing curiosity, as well as a wry comment on the ups and downs in standing of pieces of culture, particularly as studied by university academics.
"A Great Day For Brontosaurs" has a corporate project director pitching the idea of recreating dinosaurs to his company’s chief financial officer (a discussion which, naturally, touches on points that Michael Crichton missed in his take on the subject). While interesting enough in itself, however, just as in "’Hello,’ Said The Stick," this brief, mainly conversational story uses a seemingly mundane discussion of the extraordinary as a set-up for something else, with the twist capping it off nothing short of spectacular.
The next story, "Dirty Little War," juxtaposes two familiar, even clichéd images from the 1960s—the suburban cocktail party and the war in Vietnam. That incongruity sets up the final twist in which these two contemporaneous but very different images prove not to be so far apart after all. While an interesting idea, though, it seemed (to me at any rate) somewhat more compelling in idea than in execution, though Swanwick’s surreal story certainly has its interest.
The last story in this collection, "Urdumheim," is a postmodern revisioning of the story of the Tower of Babel related by a minor figure in the event, "Gil." "Urdumheim" is also a creation myth, a meditation on the meaning of language, and a satirical response to events in our own time (which ironically, have fixed our attention on these lands again)—and succeeds on all these levels. Grandly imagined and displaying Swanwick’s trademark flow of invention, a particular point of interest is the way in which it uses the Mesopotamian myth and history in which the Bible has its roots. Despite some touches of levity, it is heavier stuff than most of his other stories, but Swanwick pulls it off with grace, making this a suitable conclusion to this collection, as well as a beginning.
Paperback: 256 pages