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The Dog Said Bow-Wow
Michael Swanwick
Tachyon Publications, 295 pages

The Dog Said Bow-Wow
Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick's third novel, Stations of the Tide, won a Nebula Award for best novel of 1991. It was also a nominee for the Hugo Award, as was his novella, Griffin's Egg, and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in Britain. His first two published stories, The Feast of Saint Janis and Ginungagap were both Nebula Award finalists in 1980. Mummer Kiss was a Nebula Award nominee for 1981. The Man Who Met Picasso was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cigar-Box Faust, and Other Miniatures
SF Site Review: Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures
SF Site Review: Tales of Old Earth
SF Site Review: The Iron Dragon's Daughter
SF Site Review: Jack Faust

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dave Truesdale

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This wonderful collection gives us many of the author's most recent stories, dating from 2001-2007. It includes 3 Hugo winners: "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" (short story, 2002, also a Nebula nominee), "Slow Life" (novelette, 2003), "Legions in Time" (novelette, 2004); 2 Hugo nominees, " 'Hello,' Said the Stick" (short story, 2003), "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" (short story, 2003); and one original story "The Skysailor's Tale," which also sees print in the Oct./Nov. issue of F&SF.

" 'Hello,' Said the Stick" is quite short but makes its point quite effortlessly, that knowing human psychology and the use of deception in warfare are sometimes more effective than raw power. The high-tech AI stick of the title proves that appearances can not only be deceiving, but deadly.

"The Dog Said Bow-Wow," "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport," and "Girls and Boys Come Out to Play" are the first three tales featuring the irascible duo Surplus and Darger, in what one hopes will be a long-running stream of tales. Though their own characters, they represent the modern day counterparts of Fritz Leiber's famous and much beloved Fafhrd and Gray Mouser adventurers. They travel through a crazy, mixed-up future world where science is so advanced it might as well be magic (Surplus and Darger are themselves genetically altered "smart" animals), and we watch in anticipation and dread as they run into all manner of evil characters, beguiling women, and narrow escapes (some stemming from their own scheming). Through inventive and colorful incident, plot twists, and clever dialogue, the author manages to impart wry comment on a number of topics along the way, but never forgets to give the reader an entertaining read. Eventually, these first three tales are bound to be added to future forays and collected in a book of their own. I'd advise getting in on the ground floor of this lively, enchanting series now, however, since this series-beginning trio of adventures are wisely collected here for the first time.

The fifteen stories cover the spectrum from hard SF to XXX-rated fantasy. Representative examples of the SF variety include "Triceratops Summer," an absolutely frightening story of an experiment gone wrong. The timestream is inadvertently opened allowing herds of Triceratops to lumber across the land. The horror, however, comes not from these gentle, beautiful beasts, but from what takes place to the timestream -- and the people of the here and now -- when the error is corrected. It isn't quite what you think, and centers on the lives of two people very much in love.

"Slow Life" begins as a hard SF tale concerning the exploration of Titan. Through mechanical error, a female explorer gathering samples in a balloon-like contrivance is stranded in the atmosphere and will die in an endless low-Titan orbit unless rescued before her oxygen runs out. But this is when the story becomes anything but a standard rescue story, for every time the astronaut sleeps, she dreams of strange beings and cities inside the moon. Discounting them at first, they figure largely in her eventual outcome. The beauty lies not only in the how and why of it all, but in the rather unsettling concept and author's ability to carry it all off so grandly, with vivid description and insight. Again, a science fiction story with the human element at its core.

A major attraction (one of many) of this collection is the variety. Michael Swanwick can do it all, and very well. There's never a dull moment. One of several highlights is his 2002 short story "Dirty Little War," which is just about the hardest hitting piece of satire we've read in quite some time. It is a devastating, scathing look at the Vietnam War as related in alternating segments; one from the perspective of the soldiers fighting and dying, the other from the perspective of those attending a suburban cocktail party literally a world apart (especially mentally) from the reality of the War. Until the sharp, unexpected ending brings both worlds together in a crushing denouement.

You want variety? You crave something different? Try the XXX-rated fantasy "The Bordello in Faerie" from the Oct. 2006 issue of the UK magazine Postscripts. It ingeniously inverts the tropes laid down in Dunsany's world of Faerie, reverses the standard, commonly-assumed view of prostitution, and then centers these around a young factory lad's coming of age and his first trip to "The Bordello in Faerie." I can't imagine the fun Swanwick must have had writing this one. It's one of those deliciously irreverent, weird, offbeat stories that one never quite forgets, and it (as you might expect) really sticks out from the rest. Or should I say it really stands out from the rest. Either way, take my word for it; I'm not just giving this story lip service.

One story is original to this collection, but for all practical purposes "Urdumheim" is new as well. Technically this is a reprint, for it is now also appearing in the just-now-on-the-stands Oct./Nov. special All-Star Anniversary Issue of F&SF. "Urdumheim" is a creation myth story, chock-full of Swanwick's wildly creative, off-center takes on an old theme. This one is full of bizarre evil creatures fighting to reinstate Chaos by defeating the (original) People, traitors, schemes, lessons to be learned, magic, (again) a love story, and a brilliant metaphor used to show how the loss of language turns us into little more than grunting beasts. Heaven help us, does Swanwick never let up?

Original to this collection is the novelette "The Skysailor's Tale." Identical in framing structure to "The Changeling's Tale" (Asimov's, Jan., 1994), they both begin by the fireside in the dark of winter while the story proper is told by an older mentor to a younger man (in this case a father to his son about to leave home). I shan't say too much because it is a new story, but it's an alternate history taking place near the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The British are ahead of us technologically, with electricity and a few other items of a like nature, though our story takes place during its birthing pangs. The father's quietly told story reads like a travelogue of his youthful adventures, including that of pirate, which at this point we should mention has one erotic yet sensitively described X-rated scene on the pirate ship best left for the reader to discover. In his usual sensitive, almost poetic prose filled with nuance and insight, Swanwick's focus once again, and in the end, revolves around the love between a man and a woman, and the lessons the father has learned and is now passing on to his son. I vividly recall reviewing "The Changeling's Tale" very positively, and I would give "The Skysailor's Tale" equal if not higher approbation.

I am biased. I am prejudiced. I am an unabashed and fervent extoller of Michael Swanwick's work. Witty, smart, challenging, marveling in off-beat invention and beautifully written, no one consistently writes short stories like he does, and this excellent, smartly conceived collection brings together his best and most recent work.

Many are aware of a quote I am fond of using as a general guiding principle, but in the case of Michael Swanwick's body of short work it seems to have been written specifically for him:

"When any category of science fiction writing has become dull and repetitive, there is always a brilliant story waiting to be written by giving up the assumptions that made the story easy to write."
--Damon Knight
If this doesn't exemplify Michael Swanwick's approach to short fiction, I don't know what does. The Dog Said Bow-Wow proves it, and I recommend it to you unreservedly.

Copyright © 2007 by Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and currently writes an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.


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