Wed 8 Oct 2008
Today’s short story collection, with a title like “The Best of,” represents another kind of short story collection: the retrospective, or career-spanning collection. These stories represent twenty-seven years’ worth of Michael Swanwick’s career, including five Hugo-Award-winning stories produced over the span of only six years. Mr. Swanwick is, according to his blurb, one of the most prolific writers of his generation; I’d never even heard of him before I received this ARC in the mail from Subterranean Press, but then again someone who writes mostly hard science fiction for adults and happens to be male might fly under my radar a bit. (I have my biases; who doesn’t? At least I’m working to overcome them!) He’s a Philadelphian with a rather large beard; he’s won nearly every single major award in the speculative fiction field, and usually more than once.
This massive collection — 470 pages — starts in 1980, with two of his earliest published works, and ends with a couple of stories copyrighted in 2007. Mr. Swanwick introduces his stories himself, in a three or four page introduction, and he gives a small amount of information on the background of each story. The tales range from pure high fantasy with elves to rock-hard science fiction; science-fictionalized blues to the edge of the world. The settings include various planets and moons, the earth’s moon, an office building in 1936, a pub in a secondary fantasy world, and more than one bar in the supposed current world. Nuclear war, first contact, and time-space paradoxes all have their days in these stories, but so do life, love, death, and humanity.
Now, normally I’m a fantasy buff; one would therefore surmise that the more fantastic stories in this collection would be my favorites. Not so; I thought his high fantasy stories were less interesting and had less interesting characters than some of the hardest of the science fiction. It’s possible that I should read his high-fantasy novel in order to get a better feel for his fantasy, but at the moment, I’m more likely to pick up one of his science-fiction novels than the fantasy one. Of course, another reason may be that out of the 21 stories in this volume, more than half are on the science-fiction end of the spectrum.
My favorite stories were, strangely, the ones set on other planets, where we discover odd new life forms. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” and “Slow Life” are two great examples of this. In the first, an astronaut-type is dragging her dead compatriot across Io when something starts talking to her. What is it? In the second, Lizzie O’Brien and two of her fellow astronauts are on Titan, in an information-gathering mission, when they discover a body of water. Lizzie gets trapped above this body of water in what is essentially a hot air balloon. Something starts talking to her. What is it (this time)?
Overall, it’s a really strong collection. There are some strange stories in there — in the introduction, there’s a cute story in which Mr. Swanwick’s wife is asked how she can stand to sleep by him, with all those things in his head. Her response? “Oh, they’re not in his head anymore. They’re in yours.” That’s a perfect line, and it underscores how each of the stories stuck in my brain — or, if not the entire story, then at least a major image from it. I’d definitely recommend this for any fan of Michael Swanwick’s; I know the Sub Press edition is going to be gorgeous, if the cover is any indication. I’d also recommend it for anyone (older YA and above) who likes science fiction short stories in general. 4.5/5 stars.