Born November 18, 1950, in Schenectady, NY; son of John Francis (an engineer) and Amelia (a teacher and homemaker; maiden name, O'Brien) Swanwick; married Marianne Catherine Porter (a microbiologist), November 1, 1980; children: Sean William. Education: College of William and Mary, B.A., 1972. Politics: "Elusive."
Home—457 Leverington Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19128. Agent—Martha Millard Agency, 50 West 67th St., #1G, New York, NY 10023.
Novelist and author of short fiction. National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center, information analyst, 1977-80; writer, 1980—.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Nebula Award nomination for best novelette, 1981, for "The Feast of Saint Janis," 1981, for "Ginungagap," 1982, for "Mummer Kiss," 1985, for "Trojan Horse," and 1986, for "Dogfight," nomination for best novella, 1985, for "Marrow Death," 1993, for "Griffin's Egg," and 1995, for "Cold Iron;" and nomination for best short story, 1986, for "The Gods of Mars," 1998, for "The Dead," 2000, for "Radiant Doors," 2000, for "Ancient Engines," 2001, for "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur," and 2003, for "The Dog Said Bow-Wow;" World Science Fiction Society, Hugo Award nomination for best novelette, 1986, for "Dogfight," nomination for best short story, 1990, for "The Edge of the World," 1996, for "Walking Out," 1997, for "The Dead," 1999, for "Radiant Doors," 1999, for "Wild Minds," 2000, for "Ancient Engines," 2001, for "Moon Dogs," 2003, for "'Hello,' Said the Stick," and 2003, for "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport," nomination for best novel, 1992, for Stations of the Tide, 1998, for Jack Faust, and 2003, for Bones of the Earth, nomination for best novella, 1992, for "Griffin's Egg," and nomination for best related book, 2002, for Being Gardner Dozois; World Fantasy Convention, World Fantasy Award nomination for short fiction, 1983, for "The Man Who Met Picasso," 1990, for "The Edge of the World," and 2001, for "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O," nomination for best novel, 1994, for The Iron Dragon's Daughter, nomination for best short story, 1995, for "The Changeling's Tale," and nomination for best collection, 1998, for A Geography of Unknown Lands; Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, 1989, for "The Edge of the World"; Nebula Award for best novel, 1992, and Arthur C. Clarke Award nomination, both for Stations of the Tide; World Fantasy Award for best novella, 1996, for "Radio Waves," Hugo Award for best short story, 1999, for "The Very Pulse of the Machine," 2000, for "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur," and 2002, for "The Dog Said Bow-Wow;" Hugo Award for best novelette, 2003, for "Slow Life," and 2004, for Legions in Time.
In the Drift, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1985.
Vacuum Flowers, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1987.
Stations of the Tide, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Gravity's Angels: Thirteen Stories, Arkham House (Sauk City, WI), 1991.
Griffin's Egg (novella), illustrated by Peter Gudynas, Century Legend (London, England), 1991, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.
The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Easton Press (Norwalk, CT), 1993.
Jack Faust, Avon (New York, NY), 1997.
A Geography of Unknown Lands (short stories), Tiger Eyes Press (Lemoyne, PA), 1997.
The Postmodern Archipelago (nonfiction chapbook), Tachyon Publications (San Francisco, CA), 1997.
Tales of Old Earth (short stories), Frog Ltd. (Berkeley, CA), 2000.
Moon Dogs (short stories), edited by Ann A. Broom-head and Timothy P. Szczesuil, NESFA Press (Framingham, MA), 2000.
Puck Aleshire's Abecedary, Dragon Press (Pleasantville, NY), 2000.
Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures (short stories), Tachyon Publications (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
Bones of the Earth, EOS/HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Michael Swanwick's Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna (chapbook collection), Tachyon Publications (San Francisco, CA), 2003.
Work included in anthologies, including New Dimensions 11, edited by Robert Silverberg, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1980; Proteus: Voices for the '80s, edited by Richard S. McEnroe, Ace (New York, NY), 1981; Slow Dancing through Time, Ursus Imprints (Kansas City, MO), 1990; and Killing Me Softly, edited by Gardner Dozois, HarperPrism (New York, NY), 1995. Contributor of stories to magazines, including Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, High Times, Triquarterly, New York Review of Science Fiction, Omni, Penthouse, New Dimensions, and Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and to Web sites, including Infinite Matrix.
Swanwick's works have been translated into Japanese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Croatian, Polish, Russian, and Finnish.
Work in Progress
A new novel.
The son of an engineer, science-fiction writer Michael Swanwick might have entered the same profession if not for his growing fascination with
the science underlying engineering, and from there the "lure" of literature. As he noted in the St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers: "Science fiction allows me to keep faith with my past as well as the future." The author of such novels as The Iron Dragon's Daughter and Bones of the Earth, as well as numerous short stories, Swanwick has earned a loyal fan following with his innovative mix of science fact and literary inspiration.
Born in upstate New York in 1950, Swanwick attended the College of William and Mary and graduated with a bachelor's degree in the spring of 1972. Months later, as he explained it on his Web site, "I arrived in Philadelphia with a suitcase full of clothes, seventy dollars in traveler's checks, a friend who was willing to put me up on his couch for a few weeks, and the absolute conviction that science fiction was the highest form of literature and that I could teach myself to write it."
Unfortunately, Swanwick soon discovered that writing was not as easy as he first thought; after a winter spent scrounging for both food and money to live on, he got a job as a typist and moved in with a group of art students in a seedy section of the city. Writing and reading for six more years, he finally achieved success; his first two published stories, "The Feast of Saint Janis" and "Ginungagap," became finalists for the prestigious Nebula Award. He also met Marianne Porter, who encouraged Swanwick in his writing endeavors. In 1980 the couple were married, and Swanwick embarked upon a career as a full-time writer.
Gains Repute for Short Fiction
Swanwick first came to the attention of science-fiction fans with the publication of stories such as "Mummer Kiss," first published in 1981. This story takes place on an alternate Earth that has suffered nuclear disaster after a Three Mile Island meltdown, and humans live distorted, shortened lives and suffer a variety of mutations. This and other early tales by Swanwick were hailed as sophisticated, literary, and intellectual by critics. According to Don D'Ammassa, writing in the St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, "It is rare . . . to find an author who produces strong, speculative work in a complex literary style without a strong, action-oriented plot who nevertheless is held in high regard by a broad spectrum of readers. Michael Swanwick is one of those rarities."
A baker's dozen of Swanwick's early short stories—among them "A Midwinter 's Tale," "Mummer Kiss," and "The Edge of the World,"—are gathered
in the author's first published story collection, 1991's Gravity's Angels: Thirteen Tales. Gregory Feeley, writing for the Washington Post Book World, echoed the sentiments of several critics when he noted that Swanwick's short works "possess, at their best, the range and density of distilled novels, and lack the enervation that inevitably sets in when an author spreads his material over several volumes." These early stories, wrote a Publishers Weekly critic, establish Swanwick among "the most impressive science fiction writers of the '80s" and embody "the power and potential" of the sci-fi genre.
Moves to Longer Fiction
Swanwick has continued to create a steady stream of award-winning short stories, such as "The Man Who Met Picasso," "The Very Pulse of the Machine," and "Trojan Horse," the last a collaboration with William Gibson. His story collections, including Tales of Old Earth, Moon Dogs and A Geography of Unknown Lands, have gained him many new fans. At the same time, Swanwick has also written a number of novels. His first novel, In the Drift, was published in 1985. In this book he builds on the superstructure he created in his short stories "Mummer Kiss" and "Marrow Death." As with many of Swanwick's conceptions of future and alternate realities, In the Drift draws readers into a dark, formidable place where characters are locked in personal struggles to regain their humanity and preserve much-needed social structures following nuclear apocalypse. In the Drift fuses past with future, supposing a meltdown as a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor disaster. Although Swanwick's use of short vignettes and shifting narrative viewpoints "occasionally make for abrupt and disconcerting transitions," in D'Ammassa's view In the Drift "maintains reader interest."
In the late 1980s Swanwick became associated with the so-called "cyberpunk" school of science fiction due to his focus on the interrelationship between man and machine in his novel Vacuum Flowers. While cyberpunk writers tend to include technical jargon within their nihilistic storylines and consistently experiment with writing styles, Swanwick has since abandoned any allegience he had to this movement. Still, Vacuum Flowers fulfills the cyberpunk criteria in its story of Elizabeth Mudlark, a woman who goes in search of her true identity after she awakens in a hospital where she is scheduled to undergo personality surgery. Mudlark's journey toward the truth leads her through an asteroid-based cyberpunk society populated by "wetware" terrorists who can change their personalities via computer software and policemen who can instantly program bystanders into additional policemen. Feeley called Vacuum Flowers "densely imagined and expertly controlled," while Tom Easton, reviewing the 1988 novel in Analog, praised Swanwick as "a skillful writer with a warm sense of his characters and the ability to see conventions—even new conventions—in new ways."
Award-winning Mix of Fantasy and Sci-Fi
While calling Vacuum Flowers a "remarkable novel," D'Ammassa noted that this work "was quickly overshadowed" by Swanwick's next novel, Stations of the Tide. Winner of the 1991 Nebula Award, this novel introduces elements of the fantastic into an otherwise spare science-fiction setting. The story takes place on Miranda, a planet where summer and winter each last a century, and winter brings with it melting icecaps and "jubilee tides" that extend the ocean over the lowlands known as the Tidewater. In this landscape, indigenous life forms have adapted accordingly, and shift from land to sea dwellers, while human colonists have had more difficulty. Gregorian, a former corporate criminal and self-styled cult leader, now holds out the promise of safety to a generation of humans now facing a watery grave as winter approaches. Meanwhile, the Earth government sends an agent to hunt Gregorian and determine whether his promise of safety relies on a stolen and forbidden technology.
A Publishers Weekly contributor praised Stations of the Tide as a "fascinating mix of nanotechnology, magic, the vagaries of human nature, . . . and an accidental genocide." "For all its extravagance . . . ," Faren Miller stated in Locus, Stations of the Tide "is emotionally cool, even reserved—like its protagonist. It is a book you watch, rather than experience. Still, the view is often amazing." Feeley was more enthusiastic about the novel, calling Stations of the Tide "deeply engaging" and containing "enough pyrotechnics to fuel trilogies by lesser writers." Many critics noted Swanwick's surprise ending, which Feeley noted contains "a deft turn of incident that is both unexpected and carefully prepared." In the St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, D'Ammassa praised the novel as "a stunningly realized blend of nightmare and adventure," and called Stations of the Tide "superior in almost every way" to the author's earlier work.
Fantasy and science fiction collide again in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a "grotesque and beautiful and altogether charming" novel, according to Russell Letson in Locus. In this nihilistic tale, first published in England in 1993, Jane, a changeling who is forced to work in an exploitative dragon factory, struggles to quit a degraded fairyland and return to her human home. Despite her attempts to control her own life, she is confronted with chaos at every turn. Miller warns readers to forget notions of romantic realms of fairy, saying, "this world is more like Dickens Meets Detroit, full of grimy, toiling waifs, dark factories, trolls with boomboxes, and sleek, decadent high elves." Swanwick's version of fairyland in the grips of industrial revolution poses difficulties for some critics. According to Karen Joy Fowler in the Washington Post Book World, "despite Swanwick's wonderful and relentless detail, the world remains chaotic. . . . The plot circles and circles again, without much sense of forward motion. In the end it is this chaos that makes Swanwick's vision so dark, more than the detailed abuses and cruelties of fairyland, which are dark enough." Still, the author's magic, an ability to carry off what D'Ammassa labeled "a complex and literary style," makes the book successful for many critics. Fowler concluded that The Iron Dragon's Daughter is a "provocative and evocative book, sometimes difficult, but its rewards are constant."
Remaps Legend of Doctor Faustus
Swanwick first read Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in high school, and became captivated by the story of an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, power, and youth. As he recalled on his Web site, "for almost thirty years I carried within me the secret that someday I would create a Faust who actually gets what he bargains for and is damned thereby." In 1995 Swanwick decided he was up to the task of joining the ranks of Marlowe, Goethe, and the other writers who had tackled Faust's tale, and began the novel that would be published as Jack Faust.
Jack Faust takes the well-known parable of a man's encounter with the forces of evil and adds a science-fiction twist. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's celebrated version of the legend, Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles, selling his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly wisdom. In Swanwick's story, which opens in sixteenth-century Germany, Magister Faust is also susceptible to Satan's temptation, but this time the human is offered not just the wisdom of his own time, but knowledge of the future. "The price?," noted Keith Brooke in an online review for Infinity Plus. "The human race will pay . . . for Faust's deal with the devil; we're so corrupt that all knowledge will be turned to evil uses and we will ultimately destroy ourselves." Mephistopheles is depicted as "a constantly changing construct operated—manned, womaned, impersonated, crewed, it is hard to say precisely—by beings from a bubble universe adjacent to ours," according to John Clute in a SciFi.com review. In Booklist Eric Robbins praised Jack Faust as a "wondrous retelling of Goethe's masterpiece [that] puts a whole new spin on the original."
Swanwick condenses five hundred years of history into his novel, culminating with Jack's metamorphosis into German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a plot twist the author said fits the "grim story" of his novel. Speaking to Nick Gevers in an Infinity Plus interview, Swanwick added that "in some ways this book is my argument with Goethe. On that level, I wanted to accomplish two things," one of which was revoking Faust's salvation. "Goethe," the author continued, "was writing in the Age of Enlightenment, of course, and Faust's divine discontent looks very different to us from the far side of the
Holocaust." While some critics characterized Jack Faust as science fiction, the author said that even he is not sure he would categorize his book that way. "I wrote it not knowing whether it was SF or Fantasy," he recalled to Gevers in his Infinity Plus interview, "and when it came out, its American publisher packaged it as mainstream, while its British publisher as Horror. What I did was move the legend into a materialistic universe."
Bones of the Earth
Swanwick's interest in dinosaurs was piqued after attending Dinofest, billed as "the world's fair of dinosaurs." The author sat in on a symposium, and "got to observe any number of underpaid but genuinely content paleontologists being deeply and enthusiastically involved in such questions as what degree of flexion a T. Rex had in its forelimbs," as he later recalled in his Infinity Plus online interview. "There were elder distinguished figures in the field running to hear the next paper. They were in a frame of mind in which work and play were essentially indistinguishable. I wanted to write about that."
"A new novel from Michael Swanwick is rare, and an Event," declared Gevers in Locus, referring to the release of Bones of the Earth, the author's take on paleontology, in particular the study of dinosaurs. Smithsonian paleontologist Richard Leyster is surprised one day by the arrival of a strange man—Harry Griffin—with a strange package: the head of a newly killed triceratops and the offer of more discoveries to come. As Leyster learns, a race of beings from the future, the Unchanging, "are offering a limited form of time travel to humanity," as a Kirkus Reviews contributor described it. Griffin and other time travelers have been warned against causing alterations in the historical record, but in giving Leyster the dinosaur skull he disobeys that restriction and many suffer the consequences. In Booklist, Regina Schroeder called the novel "a strange and thrilling take on great legends and cultural obsessions," while Gevers deemed Bones of the Earth "a landmark SF novel, a masterclass in how to metamorphose cutting-edge science into the sharpest science fiction conceivable."
Continues to Pen Versatile Fiction
Throughout his writing career Swanwick's style and subject matter have varied greatly and his ability to experiment with theme, language and form is evident in a number of works. New York Times Book Review contributor Gerald Jonas, discussing Stations of the Tide, noted that "at his best, Mr. Swanwick challenges the routine ways we divide up the world. He pursues elusive truths that resist pigeonholing." Feeley praised Swanwick's "gift for writing compact, intelligent prose," while D'Ammassa concluded that, despite Swanwick's chameleon tendency, "he has never lost sight of the basic values of good writing, an interesting story, polished narrative technique, and respect for the reader."
In discussing the changing face of science fiction, Swanwick explained to a Locus interviewer that the assumptions underlying Earth's future changed following the end of the Cold War, and that because there is no clear sense where society is now going, many authors have moved to writing alternate history rather than science fiction. Regarding the sci-fi genre itself, Swanwick noted that "a science fiction novel occurs in a universe which is ultimately knowable. Human beings don't have the information and may not have a large enough intellect to understand the basic nature of reality, but it is knowable. In a fantasy novel, at the very heart it is unknowable. There's mystery at the heart, and that mystery is essentially religious."
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Analog, February, 1998, review of A Geography of Unknown Lands, p. 145; May, 1998, review of Jack Faust, p. 144; June, 1998, review of The Postmodern Archipelago, p. 132.
Booklist, September 1, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 67; May 15, 1998, review of Jack Faust, p. 1607; January 1, 2002, Regina Schroeder, review of Bones of the Earth, p. 825.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 1073; November 1, 2001, review of Bones of the Earth, p. 1524.
Kliatt, January, 1999, review of Jack Faust, p. 15.
Library Journal, September 1, 1997, review of JackFaust, p. 221.
Locus, March, 1998, interview with Swanwick; February, 2002, Nick Gevers, review of Bones of the Earth, pp. 29-30.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December, 1997, review of A Geography of Unknown Lands and Jack Faust, p. 30.
If you enjoy the works of Michael Swanwick
If you enjoy the works of Michael Swanwick, you may also want to check out the following books:
Octavia E. Butler, Dawn, 1987.
James Morrow, City of Truth, 1992.
Nancy Kress, The Aliens of Earth, 1993.
Necrofile, summer, 1998, review of Jack Faust, p. 29.
New Statesman, November 15, 1991, review of Griffin's Egg, p. 66.
New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1991, Gerald Jonas, review of Stations of the Tide, p. 37; March 13, 1994, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1991, review of Stations of the Tide, p. 61; June 28, 1991, review of Gravity's Angels, pp. 91-92; December 20, 1993, review of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, p. 55; August 18, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 70.
Science Fiction Chronicle, February, 1998, review of Jack Faust, p. 59.
Small Press Review, October, 1997, review of A Geography of Unknown Lands, p. 16.
Washington Post Book World, January 30, 1994, Karen Joy Fowler, review of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, p. 15; December 7, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 10.
Infinity Plus,http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/ (July 9, 2002), Nick Gevers, "The Literary Alchemist"; Keith Brooke, review of Jack Faust.
Michael Swanwick Web Site,http://www.michaelswanwick.com (July 11, 2004).
Scifi.com,http://www.scifi.com/ (July 9, 2002), John Clute, "Excessive Candour."
SFsite.com,http://www.sfsite.com/ (June, 2002), Lou Anders, interview with Swanwick.