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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: The Dog Said Bow-Wow
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 Paul Kincaid

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There are two types of story. By this, I don't mean anything as straightforward as the difference between realist and fantastic or between genre and mainstream. No, the two types of story are those that want you to be aware they are story, and those that don't. In the first you will meet narrators who say: "I am telling you a story"; they often employ embedded stories; they reuse familiar motifs; their narrative structure is deliberately modelled upon some identifiable source, whether it be fairy story, nursery rhyme, myth or literary classic. In other words, we are meant to be aware of a frame around the story. The second type want us not to notice the frame: the narrator isn't telling us a story but recounting something that really happened, the aim is novelty rather than familiarity, even if it does reuse an old plot the hope is that it will be so disguised we don't really notice. In other words, we are meant to be immersed in the story. The difference between the two is not generic: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a framed narrative, as are many of the ghost stories of M.R. James and practically everything by Kelly Link; Charles Dickens's "The Signalman" is an immersive story, as are most of the short fictions of Theodore Sturgeon and practically everything by M. John Harrison.

The real difference between these two types of story is not in the telling, but in where the telling is intended to take us. Immersive stories mean to tell us something about the world by way of the characters, setting, plot we encounter in the story. Framed narratives mean to tell us something about Story, the imaginative construct by which we comprehend and negotiate the world.

Michael Swanwick is undeniably an adept of the framed narrative, but these thoughts are particularly prompted by "Urdumheim," the last and best of the stories gathered in this collection. "Urdumheim" is a myth of origin, specifically of the origin of language (it ends, significantly, with the building rather than the destruction of the Tower of Babel). Everything in this story carries a huge signpost telling us "this is myth," from the names of the characters (Nimrod, Enlil), the knowing reference towards those myths we are already expected to know (the Tower of Babel), the way unremarkable incidents are freighted with extraordinary significance (a line is scratched in the mud and "thus did history begin"), and the way the extraordinary is deemed completely unexceptional. The world is new, indeed it is being created even as we watch, and during the course of this raw myth, history, war, death and murder are all invented (it is interesting that what brings this story closest to us is concerned with endings rather than beginnings). But the real invention about which this whole story turns is language. Nimrod gifts his people a vocabulary, it is what allows them to escape the nullity that is Urdumheim, but the creatures of this primeval hell will not let the people go. They attack by stealing words, leaving the victims not silent but stupid. Our hero, all language gone, falls under the power of the enemy, but at the last moment is able to alert Nimrod to danger by making a sound, in effect creating his own language.

At its most basic, all myth is about using Story to render a dangerous and mysterious world habitable, about how imposing a narrative on the world makes it recognisable. In the case of a myth of language, this is doubly the case, and Swanwick does the job superbly. Except for an occasional knowing modern intrusion, he captures the tone, manner and effect of myth precisely. Yet in the end, while you admire the achievement, you can't help asking yourself: why? It's not as if we need a new myth of origin for language, we've got plenty of our own. And in our increasingly sophisticated world we look at something like this to comment upon the way this particular Story works; but Swanwick inhabits the worldview of his myth so thoroughly (the modern intrusions break our concentration but don't amount to a fresh perspective) that he can't step outside the story sufficient to say anything about how it works.

Myth, in one form or another, keeps cropping up throughout this collection, but it is always a given: this is an ancient Story so accept it without question. In "Boys and Girls Come Out to Play," the third and weakest of the stories about Darger and Surplus, far-future conmen heroes in the mode of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, we have an Arcadia (Greece) populated by satyrs where the gods are being resurrected. Myth, in such a tale, is not some deep shaping of our consciousness but merely a set of antic figures to be played with.

He's playing also in "A Great Day for Brontosaurs," though in this case he's playing with one of the oldest and most worn-out tropes in science fiction, that tale in which we end up discovering that the characters are really Adam and Eve. If you thought that type of story had been dead and buried decades ago, you're right; this feeble little piece does nothing to make you think there's life in the old trope yet.

Swanwick plays with another form of Story in "A Small Room in Koboldtown," which transposes a locked-room mystery into a curiously American fantasyland: Chandleresque mean streets populated by haints and kobolds and the like. Unfortunately the fantasy despoils the mystery. The rules, indeed the joy, of a locked room mystery is that the author plays fair with the readers, planting clues that could be picked up but of course aren't. But in this instance the mystery turns upon a fantasy characteristic of a fantasy character; we readers couldn't even have pretended to solve this puzzle up front. Such stories tell us nothing about Story, only that Swanwick can play, to reasonably amusing effect, upon a set of clichés with which we are all already too familiar.

There's something similar in "The Bordello in Faerie," whose title really tells you more than you need to know about this tedious long tale. It's that now familiar situation (from Hope Mirlees's Lud in the Mist via Neil Gaiman's Stardust) of a town in the human world sitting just across the border from Faerie. Only in this situation there is a bordello in Faerie which our lummox of a hero is anxious to visit, but once there he finds himself playing the role of whore to a sequence of fairy tale women, until he finds true love in the human world and settles down never to visit the bordello again. End of story, except there is no story here, no coherent narrative, only a sequence of unconnected incidents, part coy, part pornographic, that add up to no interesting whole. He may do the clichés, but can't he do something worthwhile with them?

It is probably no coincidence that the stories which play most blatantly with the tropes of Story are (with the exception of "Urdumheim") the least successful in the book. Though even the better stories here show an almost fatal attraction for cliché. Except for the occasional technological toy, "Tin Marsh" could have been set in California in the 1850s with its tale of two prospectors alone in a harsh landscape who fall out and then, on the point of killing each other, chance upon their fortune. "An Episode of Stardust" is an account of a con trick that could easily have come out of The Sting, except that it takes place in Faerie and one of the characters is a vixen.

I had to check the publication details to make sure that "An Episode of Stardust" appeared after the three Darger and Surplus stories, since its unlikely pairing and its reliance on a confidence trick plot makes it read like a dry run for those tales. The difference is that Surplus is a genetically modified dog, though he doesn't much behave like a dog, and their playground is not Faerie but a post-Utopian Europe. The sting in the first story, "The Dog Said Bow-Wow," is as conventional as that in "An Episode of Stardust," except that it involves dead technology rather than magic ingredients. The second of their three adventures is the best. "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" has a more intricate, conman conned plot; a nice line in sexual intrigue; and Swanwick seems to have relaxed into the characters. By the third of their adventures, however, "Boys and Girls Come Out to Play," he seems to be simply going through the motions, concocting a tale just to bring back two popular characters rather than because he had anything worthwhile to say.

Most of these are comedies in one form or another, or at least light entertainments. On that level they are amusing enough, though there is always a sense that he is simply using a handful of familiar tricks and toys without really doing anything interesting with them. But there are more serious stories here, and these are the one that work most consistently. Again there are conventional elements: a meeting with the alien story in "Slow Life"; the story of a middle-aged office worker from the 30s who becomes a hero of the time wars, in "Legions in Time," that seems to owe a great deal to Fritz Leiber's Change War stories; and a time-loop tale, "Triceratops Summer," that in the end feels as pointless as the way, at the end, everything that happens is casually wiped out of time once more.

Then there's "The Skysailor's Tale," the only piece that's original to this collection, that is a broken-backed story in many ways and one that feels like it should be the beginning of a novel but probably won't be. Yet there are passages in this story that are as potent as anything else in this collection. It begins, almost as if it were a straight historical story, with an old man regretting that he cannot remember his own father's funeral. This leads in to a long meditation on his father, and his father's final madness, in a Philadelphia at some point in the 18th or perhaps early 19th century. Only after a dozen pages of this does the science fictional suddenly, and without prior warning, burst into the story. From this moment on we could be reading a completely different work; the pace changes abruptly, we are in a harum-scarum adventure involving airships and alternate worlds, while the father's funeral is now wiped out of our consideration. This part of the story feels incomplete, not fully imagined, there are logical leaps, explanations that aren't quite developed; yet it is written with a vigour and a sense of colourful action that keeps you reading nonetheless.

Finally there are two anti-war stories that, along with "Urdumheim," really are worth the cost of entry alone. The collection opens with "'Hello' Said the Stick," a brief, taut, unfussy fable that does more in five pages than many of these stories manage in four times that space. But even this pales beside "Dirty Little War," in which American suburbanites gather for an alcohol-fuelled party completely unaware of the minute soldiers making their way across the floor. But the soldiers, condemned to a meaningless patrol in Vietnam, are being picked off one by one. Only as the last survivor makes it to the far wall and gasps his last does the party hostess receive the news of her own son's death in Vietnam. If everything in the collection had the power, the focus, the economy of these two brief tales this would have been a book full of vital messages from the world of Story. As it is, there are still intriguing hints about the ways we read our world.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.


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