Swanwick, Michael 1950-
SWANWICK, Michael 1950-
PERSONAL: 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."
ADDRESSES: Agent—Martha Millard Agency, 204 Park Ave., Madison, NJ 07940.
CAREER: Information analyst for National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center, 1977-80; writer, 1980—.
MEMBER: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, 1990, for "The Edge of the World"; Nebula Award for best novel, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, 1991, for Stations of the Tide; World Fantasy Award for best novella, 1996, for "Radio Waves"; Hugo Award nomination for Best Short Story, World Science Fiction Society, 2001, for "Moon Dogs."
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 (short stories), Arkham (Sauk City, WI), 1991.
Griffin's Egg, illustrated by Peter Gudynas, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1992.
The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994, Avon Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Jack Faust, Avon Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Tales of Old Earth, Frog (Berkeley, CA), 2000.
Bones of the Earth, EOS/HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Also author A Geography of Unknown Lands and The Postmodern Archipelago; author of short story "Moon Dogs." Contributor of stories to magazines, including Omni, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
SIDELIGHTS: The son of an engineer, Michael Swanwick might have entered the same profession if not for the "lure" of first science, then literature. He told St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers: "Science fiction allows me to keep faith with my past as well as the future." Swanwick's early influence on the field was through his short stories, many of which have been hailed as sophisticated, literary, and intellectual. According to Don D'Ammassa, writing in 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, actionoriented plot who nevertheless is held in high regard by a broad spectrum of readers. Michael Swanwick is one of those rarities."
Thirteen of Swanwick's early short stories were gathered in the 1991 collection Gravity's Angels. Gregory Feeley, writing for the Washington Post Book World,found 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, established Swanwick as "one of the most impressive science fiction writers of the '80s."
Swanwick's first novel, In the Drift, builds on the superstructure laid down in two previous short stories, "Mummer Kiss" and "Marrow Death." As with many of his visions of future and alternate realities, the world of In the Drift is a dark, formidable place where characters are locked in struggles to regain humanity amid a myriad of societal upheavals. In the Drift twists past and future together, supposing a meltdown as a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor disaster. The result, according to D'Ammassa, is a strange world where "North America subsequently became a fragmented and often bizarre place to live."
In the novel Vacuum Flowers, readers follow Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark in her search for identity after she wakes in a hospital to find herself inexplicably about to undergo personality surgery. Her journey toward learning the truth of who she is leads her through a cyberpunk future 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," and Tom Easton, reviewing the book for Analog, commented that Swanwick "is a skillful writer with a warm sense of his characters and the ability to see conventions—even new conventions—in new ways."
Stations of the Tide, Swanwick's 1991 Nebula Awardwinner, introduces elements of the fantastic into an otherwise spare science fiction medium. "For all its extravagance," Faren Miller said in Locus, "this novel is emotionally cool, even reserved—like its protagonist. It is a book you watch, rather than experience. Still, the view is often amazing." On the planet Miranda, summer and winter each last a century and with winter comes the melting of icecaps and the "jubilee tides" which extend the ocean over the lowlands known as the Tidewater. Indigenous life forms shift accordingly, from land to sea dwellers, and now Gregorian, a self-styled image, promises the same for humans. To this world in flux comes "the bureaucrat," an Offworlder searching for Gregorian, who is a renegade scientist with proscribed technology he has brought to Miranda. Swanwick keeps the outcome a secret until the very end. Feeley called Stations of the Tide "a deeply engaging novel, which throws off enough pyrotechnics to fuel trilogies by lesser writers and ends—in a deft turn of incident that is both unexpected and carefully prepared—on an apt and lovely note of closure."
Fantasy and science fiction collide again in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a "grotesque and beautiful and altogether charming" book, according to Russell Letson in Locus. Jane, a changeling, 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 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."
Jack Faust takes the well-known parable of a man's encounter with the forces of evil and adds a sciencefiction twist. In Johann Goethe's celebrated version of the legend, Dr. Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles—Faust sells 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 of 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." And 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 of Jack Faust.
Five hundred years of history is condensed into Jack Faust, culminating with the title characters metamorphosis into Adolf Hitler, a plot twist that the author said fits the "grim story" of his novel. Speaking to 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'd categorize his book that way. "I wrote it not knowing whether it was SF or Fantasy," he said in Gevers's 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."
"A new novel from Michael Swanwick is rare, and an Event," declared Locus writer Nick Gevers in February, 2002. Gevers was referring to the release of Bones of the Earth, the author's take on paleontology, in particular the study of dinosaurs. 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. Time-travelers like Griffin are warned against causing paradoxes in history. Gevers deemed Bones "a landmark SF novel, a masterclass in how to metamorphose cutting-edge science into the sharpest science fiction conceivable."
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 recalled in the Infinity Plus 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."
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's Gerald Jonas, writing about Swanwick's Stations of the Tide found 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 that can dramatize scientific speculations with unusual verve."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Analog, June, 1985, p. 163; November, 1987, pp. 135, 183; September, 1991, pp. 161-163; February, 1992, p. 159; June, 1992, p. 168; 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.
Fantasy Review, April, 1985, p. 28; March, 1987, p. 42.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1991, p. 764; July 15, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 1073; November 1, 2001, review of Bones of the Earth, p. 1524.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, January, 1999, review of Jack Faust, p. 15.
Library Journal, February 15, 1987, p. 164; February 15, 1991, p. 224; November 15, 1993, p. 102; September 1, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 221.
Locus, January, 1991, p. 16; September, 1993, pp. 29, 69; February, 2002, Nick Gevers, review of Bones of the Earth, pp. 29-30.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 5, 1992, p. 7.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December, 1991, p. 73; December, 1997, review of A Geography of Unknown Lands and Jack Faust, p. 30;
Necrofile, summer, 1998, review of Jack Faust, p. 29.
New Statesman and Society, November 26, 1993, p. 43.
New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1987; March 17, 1991, Gerald Jonas, review of Stations of the Tide, p. 37; March 13, 1994, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, January 9, 1987, p. 85; January 4, 1991, p. 61; June 28, 1991, pp. 91-92; November 15, 1991, p. 66; December 20, 1993, p. 55; August 18, 1997, review of Jack Faust, p. 70.
Science Fiction Chronicle, August, 1987, p. 53; October, 1991, p. 41; February, 1998, review of Jack Faust, p. 59.
Small Press Review, October, 1997, review of A Geography of Unknown Lands, p. 16.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1985, p. 140; August, 1987, p. 133.
Washington Post Book World, February 22, 1987, p. 8; February 24, 1991, p. 8; July 28, 1991, p. 11; February 23, 1992, p. 10; 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.
Scifi.com,http://www.scifi.com/ (July 9, 2002), John Clute, "Excessive Candour."*