TALES OF OLD EARTH
Frog Ltd./Tachyon Publications / 250 pages / June 2000
There is nothing surprising about seeing Michael Swanwick’s name on an awards ballot; he has been nominated for and won every prestigious award in the genre. Two of his short stories are up for the Hugo this year. He is a talented writer with much to say — the kind of author who should be honoured.
The surprising thing, really, is that some of the stories in this collection have not been nominated. But it is a kaleidoscope of themes, voices, and directions. Start with the two on this year’s ballot.
“Ancient Engines” is a thoughtful and superbly subtle take on the nature and quality of life, and poses the question whether any of us needs or merits more than a normal lifespan. The second story, “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur,” explores the vast possibilities for disaster when humans are gifted with new technology. Whenever tested, human beings invariably come up short. Both stories are dead-on hits.
Swanwick knows people. In fact, he knows things about us that we’re not quite sure we really wanted to know. But, we can’t stop reading, so we will find out, nonetheless.
The stories in Tales of Old Earth range from the charming, but somehow disturbing, “Ice Age” to the chilling “Radiant Doors” to the erotic fantasy of “Midnight Express.” It’s an impressive display of dexterity and range — although you realize that Swanwick has much more to say and more ideas to explore. I’m convinced we can’t see the edge of his horizons from here.
Nominations aside, the most striking story in the collection is undoubtedly “Radio Waves.” The originality and surreal feel of this story place it in a category all its own. The astounding reach of the piece brings to mind the best of Lethem and Aylett, but is completely unique. Upon reaching the last word of “Radio Waves,” there is an irresistible compulsion to read it through again, just to engrave it on your mind so that the experience never dims. One read though, and the story is with you forever.
“Microcosmic Dog” is another standout. The appeal of reality versus the ideal existence is an intriguing theme. The confusion and distress of Ellen, the protagonist, is perfectly and painfully conveyed. The person going through this situation could be anyone; could be you. Taking in the concept of such an existence is a challenge to the imagination. Which decision is correct is a question that will vary with each reader.
Michael Swanwick is an artist of words. If, by some strange chance, you haven’t discovered his work, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction than Tales of Old Earth. If you are already a fan, the collection will be a gift, a chance to hold some of his greatest short stories in one volume. To anyone who enjoys science fiction, fantasy, or horror, it is essential.
Now, quick! Before the final vote for the Hugos! Grab Tales of Old Earth and see what all the fuss is over Swanwick. And, most importantly, stretch your mind. The rest will follow.