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Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures
Michael Swanwick
Tachyon Publications, 94 pages

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

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When I was a kid, a discarded cigar box was a prize, waiting to be filled with all matter of treasures. Interesting rocks and smooth-polished chestnuts, photos, old pens, cat's eye marbles and toy cars and animals. If you thought you outgrew the need for such things, you may find that old desire renewed -- or at least comfortably echoed -- by this collection of small, and frequently intricate, stories.

Although Michael Swanwick's novels have earned plenty of acclaim, they have never been as celebrated as his short stories. Collections such as Tales of Old Earth, Gravity's Angels, and others offer the award-winners and the better-known stories. But Swanwick has also produced plenty of little-known short-short fiction. "The primary rule of writing is to use exactly as many words to say something as it takes, no more, no less," he tells us in his introduction. These stories offer his proof.

The title story is a cheeky five-minute version of the classic tale of the man who sold his soul to the Devil for all the world's knowledge. The author encourages readers to perform the work themselves. (Anecdotally, it first played atop a trash can outside the convention center during a long-ago Boskone). The staging couldn't be simpler: a cigar box as stage, and the roles played by readily available household implements: a cigar as Dr. Faustus; Helen of Troy, the mystical Light of Ontology, an Angel of the Lord, and the fires of Hell all played by a box of matches; and Mephistopheles himself appearing as a cigar cutter. Love, pride, betrayal, and death: you'll be hard-pressed to find a more memorable -- and pithy -- condensation anywhere else.

An abecedary is a curious sort of meta-story: a set of twenty-six short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. Swanwick's "An Abecedary of the Imagination" contains entries such as "A is for Atlantis" (where the lost continent is found to be not so distant and a bit less magical than we might have hoped), the nightmarish "N is for Nixon", and the blackly comic "G is for Gondwanaland" with its memorable opening:

Because I was a science fiction writer and thus partook of the enormous prestige America affords both the arts and sciences, I was the first civilian allowed back in time to the Ordovician, wherein we consider the potential cosmic backlash of careless time travel.
Closely following is a similar construction based on the nine planets of our solar system. The planetary tales are, appropriately, hard SF, but no less funny -- "Saturn: the Lord of the Rings"; or bleak -- "Mars: Manifest Destiny"; or resonant -- "Pluto: Foundation". Other works-in-pieces include an homage to Philip K. Dick in "Eight Takes on Kindred Themes" -- the initial "K" stands for "Kindred" -- and "Picasso Deconstructed", which reveals, among alien portraits, coded messages, minotaurs, and other things, why you should never give Picasso a planet of his own.

A handful of short essays partake of Swanwick's wit and intellect in equal measure. Who knew -- and who can help but cheer -- to learn that the mummified middle digit of Galileo, in the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, is displayed in such a way as to direct a certain rude gesture toward the Vatican?

The strangest part of the book is "Writing in My Sleep". "Occasionally I would dream I was writing," Swanwick explains. "I would labor over the phrasing of a prose passage, revising it again and again in my mind, until I was satisfied it was as well written as it was ever going to be." Call it lucid dreaming, murky sanity, or just plain malarky, but these have bite. Take, for example, "Critics", which examines the peculiar relationship between prominent citizens of a distant planet and their... um... leeches. "Your leeches speak well of you," they say in exalted circles. Or "Trolls": Trolls are... easy to spot once you know the signs. They're always homely, usually a little short, often overweight....they are always bald. In fact, every bald person is a troll. There are no exceptions.

Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures closes with a pair of inside-the-genre meta-fictions which do more to clarify the artistic differences between SF/fantasy and the literary mainstream than any oh-so-scholarly essay by Harold Bloom. I doubt "Letters to the Editor" could have been created in any other genre; and the frenzied zeal of "The Madness of Gordon Van Gelder" is bound to raise a laugh while simultaneously drawing forth a quiet sigh of "if only" from many a writer.

Swanwick's latest collection is a cache of glimmering trinkets and treasures. The stories, whether bleak or blackly comic, smart or just plain silly, celebrate the sense of wonder in ways both child-like and wise, and as much fun as a cigar box full of sparklers and bottle rockets.

Copyright © 2003 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.


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