|Conversations with a Dark God:|
An Interview With Michael Swanwick
|An interview with Lou Anders|
| June 2002 |
A dark and twisted god, mind you, with a hellish imagination. A god who often takes an almost childish and assuredly perverse desire in torturing the characters he creates. A god with a sick sense of humor and the kind of mind that would weave stories of life on a giant grasshopper and sexual encounters with a sphinx.
But a god nonetheless.
Hands down one of the top talents in the business of science fiction writing, the man and his work exhibit such a wicked glee that it seems hardly fair to label his profession a "business" at all -- work, after all, shouldn't look like such fun. When he isn't garnering Hugo and Nebula nominations and awards for his many short stories and novels, he's out pushing the envelopes and charting new worlds. In fact, if you haven't been following it, now is a perfect time to check out his latest creation -- scifiction.com's ongoing feature, "Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction."
The concept is that Swanwick will deliver stories inspired by the elements of the Periodic Table. Beginning with hydrogen, he'll produce a short-short a week until he burns out, his brain explodes, or one-hundred and eighteen elements later, he actually reaches element 118, ununoctium.
As of this writing, SciFiction has published up to element 50, tin, with a tale of the Tin Man of Oz. Other stories have examined topics like nanotechnological life in a swimming pool, the devil's casino in Vegas, and the fact that toothpaste is a virus from outer space. The project is intriguing, hysterical, and perfect for the short-attention span of most web-browsers, but how in the world did it ever come about?
"This was originally for a magazine edited by Eileen Gunn called The Infinite Matrix," explains Swanwick. "She knew that I had a facility with short-short fiction and asked if I'd be interested in a series." Swanwick agreed, but only if he could up with something that interested him. He had already produced an abecedary -- a book of short shorts for each letter of the alphabet. E is for Elf-sex, just in case you're wondering. "I wasn't interested in repeating myself. So I started playing around and came up with the Periodic Table idea, and I thought, that's a challenge. That would be difficult to do. Unfortunately The Infinite Matrix was a victim of the dot-com collapse, so only the first issue ever came out, and that was only after the collapse. It was like a demonstration of what a cool zine it would have been."
Fortunately, after Infinity Matrix's demise, Ellen Datlow picked up the project for her fiction site, SciFiction, and scifi.com has done a marvelous job with the presentation. The results have garnered a very good reception. "It's short. It's funny. You can just log in, get your moment of entertainment, and go away. And I believe it's making me a figure of superstitious awe and terror among writers." The real thrill for the dark god, however, seems to be the challenge involved in this new creation. "We still don't know if I'll manage to get to the end," he says. "I came to vanadium, and it almost stopped me. Vanadium is not the most interesting element. Its name suggests nothing at all unlike, say, helium or kryptonite or californium or einsteinium. I researched its properties, and the most interesting thing I found out about it is that it's an essential element in the diet of chickens. So eventually I simply did a rant about it being the couch potato of the Periodic Table. It never falls off the face of the Matterhorn and is saved only by a single piton and the quick thinking of its companions. It never wins the Nobel prize for its work on behalf of refugee children, and so on. But I had been sort of holding that trick off for later. Vanadium is only element 23, and there's a lot of the Periodic Table to go, so I'm still up on a tightrope. There is always the possibility that I'll fall off."
Recently, Infinite Matrix returned to life (www.infinitematrix.net), and Swanwick began a new short-short series for them called The Sleep of Reason. This will be one short-short story for every one of the eighty etchings in Goya's Los Caprichos. "This one is a lot more literarily adventurous and structurally complicated than the other series is," Swanwick says. "So, of course, it's a lot easier to write. The humor is bleaker than bleak -- I've never met a parent who didn't laugh out loud at 'The Child Buyer.' Readers are warned, however, that Prick the Donkey is not based on any actual living person. Particularly our current president."
Meanwhile, for those with a hunger for stories over five hundred or so words, Swanwick's next novel, Bones of the Earth, already in hardcover, is about to come out in paperback from HarperCollins Eos. "It's a dinosaur novel," he explains, "with time travel into the Mesozoic and paleontologists getting down and dirty with real, live, breathing dinosaurs. This is a big fantasy with paleontologists, many of whom are science fiction readers for exactly that reason -- it's the only chance they ever get to hang out with living dinosaurs. Dr. Michael Brett-Surman who works at the Smithsonian and read the book in proofs, was really anxious to sign on for an expedition down there in spite of the fact that a number of people get eaten. In fact, I think that's a secret fantasy of a lot of paleontologists -- to get eaten by a tyrannosaur. They'd go down making observations about mastication strategies."
In a previous short story, "Scherzo With Tyrannosaur", Swanwick writes lovingly of a small boys desire to be eaten by a T. Rex, making one wonder if this isn't a secret fantasy of the author's as well. "Not personally, I have to admit," he says, "although when that was published in Asimov's, Robert Walters, who's a very fine dinosaur artist, did a cover of an enormous tyrannosaur about to eat a line of unsuspecting diners. He invited me, my wife and a couple of friends over for dinner in formal wear, and stood us behind a sumptuous repast, holding up wine glasses." Then he said, "'Look fatuous.' And I did; I did a great job."
Along with "Scherzo", Swanwick has previously visited his paleontological outpost in the past in another tale -- "Riding the Giganotosaur," (both stories are collected in Tales of Old Earth) -- though they are not strictly part of the continuity of this new novel. "I took "Scherzo With Tyrannosaur" and rewrote it as one of the chapters of the novel," explains Swanwick. "Except that I changed the gender of one of the characters, I changed the hero to the villain, I moved it from the Maastrichtian era to the Aptian era, and placed it under the sea, so that instead of tyrannosaurs you have plesiosaurs and mososaurs. But other than that, it's exactly the same."
So why dinosaurs anyway? How far back does the author's love affair with giant, flesh-rending carnovaurs go? "Oh, I'm like every other American boy," he says. "I loved dinosaurs from the time I was able to shove a plastic one into my mouth. My actually writing about them began in 1998 in Dinofest in Philadelphia. Dinofest is the World's Fair of dinosaurs. It is held periodically in major cities around the world. Dozens of enormous skeletons, robot dinosaurs, hundreds of genuine dinosaur eggs, a world class dinosaur art show featuring almost every dinosaur artist you've ever heard of, chunks of amber bigger than your head. It's a toy store for the mind. I was helping Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger with the art show -- just lending a hand -- so I got to work a week behind the scenes there. Afterwards, there was a scientific symposium attached to the festival, and I saw elder distinguished scientists -- famous names in the field -- running from panel to panel so they wouldn't miss a word. They were really excited to learn this information that was coming out -- it's a very exciting time in paleontology. What was particularly attractive to me was the zest that these people brought into it. They were just enormously excited about learning. And this is a particularly pure form of learning, because there is nothing as useless as a dinosaur. It's like art -- useless and beautiful. It enriches our lives but in a pragmatic sense we don't really need it. Looking at these guys, I really wanted to write about them, about their excitement, about science in its distilled essence."
As for his own research, the paleontology in Bones of the Earth is cutting edge. "It only went obsolete a week ago," laughs Swanwick, making one wonder if something like Moore's law exists for saurians. And surprisingly, the author claims that this novel may actually contain one of his rare, "happy endings," though he'll forgive us if we're suspect, given that even his own wife was skeptical. When told that the novel ended well, she replied, "Oh sure, one of your happy endings!"
Swanwick has begun work on a new novel, so the flood of stories will soon slow. Nevertheless, several more are forthcoming this year: "Dirty Little War" will be in Byron Tetrick's In the Shadow of the Wall, "The Last Geek" in Andy Duncan and F. Brett Cox's Crossroads: Southern Stories of the Fantastic, "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" in Asimov's, and "Slow Life" in Analog. Of this last, Swanwick says, "Stan Schmidt wrote me that it contains more technical detail than is usual in Analog. I'm going to have that painted on the front of my house. No -- I'm going to have that tattooed on my chest!". Furthermore, on the author's own website, www.michaelswanwick.com, the prolific author is producing a story a month. Combined with the Periodic Table of Science Fiction and the Sleep of Reason, Swanwick is currently producing an average nine short shorts a month. All in all, it's ample opportunity to check out the dark god's works, and see for yourself that they are good. Perverse. Twisted. Hysterical. And very, very good.
Lou Anders has written, directed, and edited articles, plays, screenplays, books and websites. He hasn't taken over the world yet, but he thinks he should get points for trying.
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