Posts Tagged ‘Michael Swanwick’


Escape Pod 418: The Dala Horse

The Dala Horse

by Michael Swanwick

Something terrible had happened. Linnea did not know what it was. But her father had looked pale and worried, and her mother had told her, very fiercely, “Be brave!” and now she had to leave, and it was all the result of that terrible thing.

The three of them lived in a red wooden house with steep black roofs by the edge of the forest. From the window of her attic room, Linnea could see a small lake silver with ice very far away. The design of the house was unchanged from all the way back in the days of the Coffin People, who buried their kind in beautiful polished boxes with metal fittings like nothing anyone made anymore. Uncle Olaf made a living hunting down their coffin-sites and salvaging the metal from them. He wore a necklace of gold rings he had found, tied together with silver wire.

“Don’t go near any roads,” her father had said. “Especially the old ones.” He’d given her a map. “This will help you find your grandmother’s house.”


“No, Far-Mor. My mother. In Godastor.”

Godastor was a small settlement on the other side of the mountain. Linnea had no idea how to get there. But the map would tell her.

Her mother gave her a little knapsack stuffed with food, and a quick hug. She shoved something deep in the pocket of Linnea’s coat and said, “Now go! Before it comes!”

“Good-bye, Mor and Far,” Linnea had said formally, and bowed.

Then she’d left.
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Escape Pod 385: The Very Pulse of the Machine

Show Notes

Special thanks to user ERH at who created and/or recorded the sound effect used in this episode!

The Very Pulse of the Machine

by Michael Swanwick


The radio came on.


Martha kept her eyes forward, concentrated on walking. Jupiter to one shoulder, Daedalus’s plume to the other. Nothing to it. Just trudge, drag, trudge, drag. Piece of cake.


She chinned the radio off.


“Hell. Oh. Kiv. El. Sen.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Martha gave the rope an angry jerk, making the sledge carrying Burton’s body jump and bounce on the sulfur hardpan. “You’re dead, Burton, I’ve checked, there’s a hole in your faceplate big enough to stick a fist through, and I really don’t want to crack up. I’m in kind of a tight spot here and I can’t afford it, okay? So be nice and just shut the f*** up.”

“Not. Bur. Ton.”

“Do it anyway.”

She chinned the radio off again.

Jupiter loomed low on the western horizon, big and bright and beautiful and, after two weeks on Io, easy to ignore. To her left, Daedalus was spewing sulfur and sulfur dioxide in a fan two hundred kilometers high. The plume caught the chill light from an unseen sun and her visor rendered it a pale and lovely blue. Most spectacular view in the universe, and she was in no mood to enjoy it.


Before the voice could speak again, Martha said, “I am not going crazy, you’re just the voice of my subconscious, I don’t have the time to waste trying to figure out what unresolved psychological conflicts gave rise to all this, and I am not going to listen to anything you have to say.”


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Book Review: “Dancing with Bears” by Michael Swanwick

The law-breaking but good-hearted character is one that most of us have come across in our consumption of media. From smuggler Han Solo to counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, we’ve time and again rooted for men and women who break the rules in pursuit of a greater good — often reluctantly.

And then there’s Darger and Surplus, who have absolutely no desire to be a force for good. They’re in Russia to make money via a complicated con involving seven beautiful women and an ambassadorship. This is the general plot of Dancing With Bears, the new novel by Michael Swanwick.

The principle characters of Dancing With Bears are Aubrey Darger, a debonair Englishman, and “Surplus” — that is, Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux — who is a dog. Well, a dog genetically engineered to have the intelligence and bearing of a man, but a dog just the same. Together, Darger and Surplus use their not-inconsiderable intelligence to try and make a buck, or a ruble, or whatever the local currency might be. These gentlemen are dropped into a futuristic Russia, but not a future you might expect. At first, when reading the novel, I thought we were in an alternate past, but as Swanwick takes us through the story, it becomes clear that the technological utopia came and went. There’s still touches of technology here and there, but on the whole the Russia through which Darger and Surplus travel is quite non-technical. Think New Crobuzon with less machinery.

Our story begins with Darger and Surplus in the service of a Byzantine prince and ambassador to Moscow, who is conveying the Pearls of Byzantium — seven physically-flawless women genetically engineered for maximum pleasure, but who can only touch their intended husband — to that great city. Early on they rescue a man from a cybernetic wolf and have a small layover at his home, during which the man’s son, Arkady, is exiled for attempting to profess his love to one of the Pearls. Later, when the group arrives in Moscow, Surplus is forced to take on the mantle of ambassadorship while Darger begins searching for their true prize: the lost library of Ivan the Great. These two missions bring our heroes in contact with a huge cast of characters and a broad series of machinations to bring about a revolution in Moscow.

What sets Darger and Surplus apart, I think, is their complete disinterest in anything that doesn’t directly benefit them. I mean, Han Solo came back to save Luke; Mal Reynolds never committed a crime that harmed the common people; and John Glasken, despite being a lout and a womanizer, played a large part in improving Australica for all its citizens. But Darger has no desire to give the library to the Russian people, and Surplus certainly isn’t being an ambassador for his health (although if, as has been said in the news, having sex keeps you healthy, Surplus certainly will live a long life). No, the two of them are running a very large con* with the goal of getting rich.

Darger and Surplus, though, aren’t the only interesting characters in Dancing With Bears. We also meet:

  • The Three Stranniks, who have their own goals for Arkady and Muscovy.
  • Zoesophia, the leader of the Pearls, whose depths are… well… deeper than Surplus (or anyone else) expected.
  • Anya Pepsicolova, Darger’s guide to the undercity of Moscow.
  • Chortenko, an advisor to the Duke, whose eyes see everything and who has a thing for kennels.
  • The Duke of Muscovy, who spends a lot of time lying down on the job.
  • Kyril, a foul-mouthed boy who becomes a companion of Darger’s.

…as well as a collection of minor characters that includes genetically-engineered nine-foot-tall bears — presumably the ones with whom the dancing is done that the title alludes to.

Dancing With Bears introduces strong characters, a future world that will appeal even to the steampunk and urban-fantasy crowds, and enough plot twists to close a grocery store’s worth of bread inventory*. While I found the immense amount of intrigue a little too tangled for my liking, I was able to set that aside because the book was so rich in character- and world-building, two things which I personally really enjoy. The pacing is a bit slow at first, and there are a couple of “as you know, Bob” moments, but once the characters arrived in Moscow I found myself quite interested in what would happen next.

My only previous exposure to the author, Michael Swanwick, was in his novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. I definitely liked Dancing With Bears more than Daughter, perhaps because — at least, in my opinion — the ending was more satisfying and there were more characters to root for.

You’ll be rooting for Darger and Surplus as you read this book. Check it out.

Note to parents: This novel contains explicit material, including sex, violence, and language, as well as scenes of torture and drug use. I personally would not recommend this for anyone under the age of 15 — and even then, only to mature teens — although you should of course make your own judgment regarding your children.

* In addition to the novel itself, you may also be interested in a series of flash fiction running on the Starship Sofa podcast, “How to Run a Con”. In it, Michael Swanwick is joined by Gregory Frost to portray Darger and Surplus as they explain to the average listener the ins and outs of being con men. It begins in Episode 176.

** Did I stretch that metaphor so far? Sorry about that. But it sounded good in my head.

Escape Pod 197: From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…

From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…

By Michael Swanwick

Imagine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound. Imagine a jeweled mountain, slender as an icicle, rising out of the steam jungles and disappearing into the dazzling pearl-grey skies of Gehenna. Imagine that Gaudí—he of the Segrada Familia and other biomorphic architectural whimsies—had been commissioned by a nightmare race of giant black millipedes to recreate Barcelona at the height of its glory, along with touches of the Forbidden City in the eighteenth century and Tokyo in the twenty-second, all within a single miles-high structure. Hold every bit of that in your mind at once, multiply by a thousand, and you’ve got only the faintest ghost of a notion of the splendor that was Babel.

Now imagine being inside Babel when it fell.

Escape Pod 157: A Small Room in Koboldtown

Show Notes

2008 Hugo Nominee!

Rated PG. Contains dark, seedy places and dark, seedy characters, only a few of them alive.

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Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

A Small Room in Koboldtown

By Michael Swanwick

That Winter, Will le Fey held down a job working for a haint politician named Salem Toussaint. Chiefly, his function was to run errands while looking conspicuously solid. He fetched tax forms for the alderman’s constituents, delivered stacks of documents to trollish functionaries, fixed L&I violations, presented boxes of candied John-the-Conqueror root to retiring secretaries, absent-mindedly dropped slim envelopes containing twenty-dollar bills on desks. When somebody important died, he brought a white goat to the back door of the Fane of Darkness to be sacrificed to the Nameless One. When somebody else’s son was drafted or went to prison, he hammered a nail in the nkisi nkonde that Toussaint kept in the office to ensure his safe return.

He canvassed voters in haint neighborhoods like Ginny Gall, Beluthahatchie, and Diddy-Wah-Diddy, where the bars were smoky, the music was good, and it was dangerous to smile at the whores. He negotiated the labyrinthine bureaucracies of City Hall. Not everything he did was strictly legal, but none of it was actually criminal. Salem Toussaint didn’t trust him enough for that.

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