Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is one of my favorite short-story SF writers; he’s pretty prolific in that format, and Gardner Dozois likes his work, so I’ve tended to come across him in Dozois’ annual collections.  He’s also got several collections of his own work available as well.  He’s won the whole gamut of awards for his various works, and this collection itself was up for a Nebula.  Suffice to say he’s the real deal.
Since I’ve never reviewed any of his work before here I’ll also plug a few of his novels, which have also been generally well-received but aren’t as numerous as his short story offerings.  I can’t really say enough positive things about Stations of the Tide, Swanwick’s examination of a nameless bureaucrat sent to stop a murderous con-man magician on the eve of a natural disaster, and both The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel are very good indeed.

Swanwick excels both in the technical aspects of writing and also subverting genre expectations.  For instance, the fantasy world he creates for the latter two novels contains the usual assortment of elves and other staple fantasy critters, but the world is grungy and shabby and contains clear parallels to our own world without beating the reader up about it too much.  And in Stations of the Tide you’re pretty sure that the bureaucrat, while well intentioned and ostensibly in the right, is fighting somewhat out of his weight class in his flashy opponent (which turns out to be true, but not in the expected way.)  Someone with such precision in writing as well as a bit of a mean streak is likely to excel in short story form, and that is the case here.

There are a few standouts in this collection.  I really liked “Scherzo With Tyrannosaur”, where a paleontologist goes through all sorts of paradoxes in a world where time travel exists.  He’s dealing with promotion to management and personnel problems; there are actually so many plot twists here that even describing it too much would probably spoil it.  Suffice to say that several unexpected things occur, followed by a nice un-resolution.  So that was good.  I also was a great fan of “Radiant Doors”, which deals with (again) time-traveling, only this time it’s refugees coming from the future where they are fleeing some sort of oppressive totalitarian state.  It becomes apparent that some of the refugees might not be simply the victims that they appear to be, though, and this one really delves into the concept of becoming what we try to avoid, without going overboard on the message.

One of the stories that lays it on a little thick was “The Dead”, which deals with a future where most work is done by literally animated corpses, and although it was well written it was somewhat aggressive about the point it was making, almost to the point of distraction.

They’re not all message pieces, though.  “Mother Grasshopper” is just sort of fun, and “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” deals with a literal train trip to Hell from the eyes of one of the staff, a soul who was undeservedly assigned to Hell, and then can’t catch a break despite always doing the “right” action.  Although it may work out for him in the end.

All in all, a nice solid short story collection, and worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

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