The Literary Alchemist
An Interview with Michael Swanwick
by Nick Gevers
Since his first short story appeared
about twenty years ago, Michael Swanwick has been one of American SF's
most stylish and subversive writers, bringing to his intense, finely wrought
stories and novels a sardonic intelligence that has few literary peers.
His output is spare: he publishes relatively infrequently, averaging one
novel every three years, and all of his works share an economy of length
that only serves to emphasize how compressedly rich a volume of symbolic
and speculative material each of them contains. To open a Swanwick text
is to broach an aesthetic Pandora's box: fascination and disturbance inevitably
and rewardingly follow.
As a novelist, Swanwick showed his gifts quickly. Although In the
Drift (1985), a portrait of an America rendered savage and strange
by nuclear meltdown, is somewhat loose structurally, it is highly atmospheric;
Vacuum Flowers (1987) is a bravura exercise in cyberpunk-tinged
space opera, delineating a colonized Solar System of infectious energy
and great danger. Stations of the Tide (1991), a winner of the
Nebula Award, is a fast and feverish meditation on transformation in
all its aspects, as its protagonist, known only as "the bureaucrat",
wanders a soon-to-be flooded world in search of a technological wizard.
The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) impregnates Celtic High Fantasy
with the seeds of rampant industrial capitalism, presenting a scathing,
and extremely entertaining, genre critique. And Jack Faust (1997),
in which the legendary Magister makes the world over by science rather
than by magic, is a dark, bizarrely mercurial, exploration of hubris
at its damning ultimate.
At the same time, Swanwick has served as one of contemporary SF's
few authentic masters of the short story. He restlessly reworks genre
themes into cogent polished gems of narrative, as can be seen in his
superb collections Gravity's Angels (1991) and A Geography
of Unknown Lands (1997), his novella Griffin's Egg (1990),
and recent tales like "The Wisdom of Old Earth" (1997) and
"The Very Pulse of the Machine" (1998). The succinct complexity
of these works is matched in the 1990s only by the short fiction of
Greg Egan and Gene Wolfe.
Swanwick is a literary alchemist, rendering everything his imagination
touches brilliantly and perversely new. In this interview, conducted
in October and November of 1999, I sought to obtain a fuller understanding
of his compelling revisionist ingenuity. For the latest information,
visit the official Michael
As a novelist, Swanwick showed his gifts quickly. Although In the Drift (1985), a portrait of an America rendered savage and strange by nuclear meltdown, is somewhat loose structurally, it is highly atmospheric; Vacuum Flowers (1987) is a bravura exercise in cyberpunk-tinged space opera, delineating a colonized Solar System of infectious energy and great danger. Stations of the Tide (1991), a winner of the Nebula Award, is a fast and feverish meditation on transformation in all its aspects, as its protagonist, known only as "the bureaucrat", wanders a soon-to-be flooded world in search of a technological wizard. The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) impregnates Celtic High Fantasy with the seeds of rampant industrial capitalism, presenting a scathing, and extremely entertaining, genre critique. And Jack Faust (1997), in which the legendary Magister makes the world over by science rather than by magic, is a dark, bizarrely mercurial, exploration of hubris at its damning ultimate.
At the same time, Swanwick has served as one of contemporary SF's few authentic masters of the short story. He restlessly reworks genre themes into cogent polished gems of narrative, as can be seen in his superb collections Gravity's Angels (1991) and A Geography of Unknown Lands (1997), his novella Griffin's Egg (1990), and recent tales like "The Wisdom of Old Earth" (1997) and "The Very Pulse of the Machine" (1998). The succinct complexity of these works is matched in the 1990s only by the short fiction of Greg Egan and Gene Wolfe.
Swanwick is a literary alchemist, rendering everything his imagination touches brilliantly and perversely new. In this interview, conducted in October and November of 1999, I sought to obtain a fuller understanding of his compelling revisionist ingenuity. For the latest information, visit the official Michael Swanwick website.
NG: Inevitably, we start with the standard question: what impelled you to become an SF and Fantasy writer?
MS: That's a hard question to answer. Somehow I decided that I was a writer, or rather that I was going to learn to be a writer, as a teenager, when there was no evidence of any sort that I had any talent whatsoever. I simply knew. It seemed inevitable. John Gardner used to say that people are hurt into becoming writers, and I've since concluded that in my case at least he was right. But that's something I don't feel comfortable talking about quite yet.
I bonded with SF and fantasy, though, because at the time I was learning my craft, in my twenties, there seemed to be perilously little of any serious interest happening outside of genre, and quite a lot inside. So I naturally identified with the clever, creative, and inventive authors.
NG: Which authors in the speculative genres, then, have influenced you particularly, or at least attracted your admiration?
MS: The three most important authors would have to be J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings picked me up by the scruff of the neck and shook me and showed me the possibilities inherent in genre when I was sixteen; Samuel R. Delany, for all his works, but most particularly The Einstein Intersection, because so much of its undeniable brilliance was deliberately placed right on the surface, where it could be seen and admired, and which a young writer could hope someday to emulate; and Gene Wolfe, simply because he is, I honestly believe, the finest writer in the English language alive today.
When I was starting out, I used to read all SF/Fantasy writers indiscriminately, as if the entire corpus of both genres had been written by a single godlike author, and I learned everything I could from them all. A. E. Van Vogt, for example, was a dreadful writer on a prose level, but wonderfully profligate with his ideas. At his best, his stories propelled the reader at breakneck force through a series of extraordinary images and wild notions. I can see his imprint on my own work very clearly. And he's only one of dozens.
NG: What of mainstream influences?
MS: Vladimir Nabokov - I've read pretty much everything he ever wrote. And everything by Thomas Pynchon, though of course that took a lot less time. Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, John Fowles, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson... There seems to be a pattern shaping up here, because these are all generators of dreams and wonders. It's likely I would've been a fantastically-oriented writer in any case.
NG: Does your work have significant autobiographical components, despite the overtly fantastic character of your books?
MS: Yes, but they're so deeply reworked and transformed, I doubt anybody but I could see them.
NG: A glance at your bibliography indicates that you are the reverse of prolific; indeed, my impression has always been that you are a very deliberate, precise writer, making every word count, able to compress astonishing amounts of material into brief, dense texts. Is this accurate?
MS: My wife says that I'm afraid of words, afraid that they'll turn and bite you if you don't watch out. In a sense, I believe that's true. Words are treacherous little buggers, and it takes extraordinary care to get them to say and mean what you want them to. But the compacted quality my prose can sometimes have stems from the fact that I'm an extraordinarily slow writer. Four pages is a good day for me; two is more typical. When you spend so much time trying to move the plot another page forward, you might as well cram a lot of little surprises into it.
NG: Your earlier short stories, such as those in Gravity's Angels, are extremely varied in subject matter and narrative voice. Were you from the beginning experimenting with the different styles available to the SF writer, perhaps engaging in parodic revisionism?
MS: I was like most young writers, in that I wanted to write about all things and in all styles. This was exacerbated, perhaps, by the fact that I hate to describe the same thing the same way twice. If I describe a snowfall, for example, I'll strive to make it different from any other snowfall I've ever written anywhere else. This is a shortcoming, not a virtue, and one I'm trying to overcome.
There are still a lot of different styles and manners I haven't employed that I'm eager to try out.
NG: Your first novel, In the Drift, is a so-called "fix-up", assembled out of separately published short stories: a time-honoured practice in SF. Do you think this approach was successful in the case of In the Drift?
MS: No, it was a mistake. But I was desperate to learn how to write a novel, and so when I took "Mummer Kiss" to Philford, a writer's workshop with Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann and Chip Delany, among others, and people advised me on how I might write a sequence of tales and unite them into one narrative, I did so. It worked well enough. Having once written a novel, I found it possible to write more. But I would have been better served, both artistically and in career terms, if I'd had a single novel-shaped story to tell. Still, that's like saying I would've been better off writing The Left Hand of Darkness to start out with. It wasn't an option available to me. It was the only novel idea I had at the time, so I went with it.
I will mention here, though, that with the exception of the original "Mummer Kiss," which I expanded to novella length, all the stories were written specifically for the novel. They were all part of a single vision, rather than disparate elements I tried to shoehorn into a plot after the fact. So my intent was pure, whatever the results.
NG: Is In the Drift an alternate-worlds novel in the full sense of the term, drawing on the grimmer, but in our history unrealized, potentials of the Three Mile Island accident?
MS: It could be read that way. I was careful to leave no indicators one way or the other, though, because I wrote ITD as a cautionary tale, and didn't see any particular benefit either in specifying that it was an alternate world or cutting off that possibility.
I was in Philadelphia when Three Mile Island went into partial meltdown. Because I didn't move fast enough, if it had gone to a full meltdown, I would have died, along with my wife and our infant son. This sort of thing makes an impression on you. Also, at that time, I was working for the National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center, at the Franklin Institute, so I had access to a lot of anti-nuclear information. So it seemed a necessary work to write at the time.
This was an extremely difficult novel to research. There's a lot less known about the effects of radiation than you'd think, and much of what is known is classified. As a result, the devastation portrayed in ITD is the absolute minimum you'd get under the circumstances.
NG: Moving on to Vacuum Flowers: here you produced a cyberpunk novel, or at least so some critics have argued. Would it be fair to say that, more precisely, you were marrying space opera with cyberpunk, creating new effects from their juxtaposition?
MS: I certainly didn't mean VF to be cyberpunk, and the cyberpunks themselves evinced a notable lack of warmth to it. My intention was to bring space opera, which at that time was looking grey and corpselike, up to date literarily and speculatively, and to this end I employed both cyberpunk and humanist tropes. In fact, as a joke, I set one deliberately cyberpunk scene near the beginning of the novel, in a shop called The Cutting Edge, and one deliberately humanist scene near the end, when two characters discuss the virtues of Matthew Arnold. When I told this to John Kessel, who is quintessentially humanist, he launched into a panegyric about Arnold, who, he said, was the first of the Victorians to realize that the future was going to be cyberpunk and unpleasant. So that seems to have been an appropriate choice.
In a sense, Vacuum Flowers was my penance for having written In the Drift. It was meant to be everything the first book wasn't - optimistic, filled with space ships and adventure, wild with possibilities. It was written right from the heart of the genre. There's been an extraordinary revitalization of space opera in the years since, and I'd like to think I played a small part in it. But there's no getting around the fact that it would have happened whether I wrote Vacuum Flowers or not.
NG: In Vacuum Flowers, the population of Earth (the metropolis) has merged into a single, and seemingly sinister, consciousness, in sharp contrast with the human beings inhabiting space (the frontier), who lead freewheeling, often dangerous, lives. This opposition of centralized coercion and anarchic liberty is traditional in American SF of the libertarian persuasion: were you commenting, perhaps subversively, on this trend?
MS: Not intentionally. Mostly I wanted Earth as an economic and colonial power out of the way so that I wouldn't write yet another American neocolonialist novel. I was writing at the end of the Cold War and all these themes that science fiction writers (and especially American SF writers) had been pounding on for so long, seemed trite and tedious and self-absorbed. They were boring. Something was definitely in the air; it wasn't so very long after that the Soviet Union collapsed, essentially because its citizens were no longer able to keep up the pretense that they gave a damn about it anymore.
As I recall, a lot of the social systems in that book were strongly coercive and restrictive. Certainly the Martians, whose society was based on Plutarch's account of Lycurgus's creation of Sparta, were anything but anarchic. In this, I was reacting to the frontier ethos that's endemic in libertarian-flavored SF, and which seems extraordinarily naive to me. I tried to display a range of plausible governmental systems throughout the System, all of them flawed the way that governments are in the real world. The only potential Utopias in the batch exist in the cometary worlds, and you'll note that I very carefully kept them off-stage.
NG: Bridging Vacuum Flowers and your third novel, Stations of the Tide: are these books set in a common future? I ask this because, when the bureaucrat in Stations encounters the threatening avatar of Earth, her action of having devoured her children resonates strongly with the Comprise absorbing all Earth's humans in Vacuum Flowers. Is Stations an outcome of the events in the earlier book?
MS: I honestly don't know. As I was writing Stations, I was aware of that as a strong possibility. But, again, I couldn't see any advantage either in affirming or denying it. So I left it up in the air.
Both works were strongly influenced by a story which, because it would have entailed enormous work, I never got around to writing. It was called "Starhenge." In it, a group of dedicated young hackers work on perfecting a computer-human interface in which human minds can share creative thought over a computer net. The name "Starhenge" comes from the conceptual shape of the parallel-processing configuration they come up with. As the system gets better and better, they come up with ever more cunning ways of obtaining the resources it needs, until all of humanity is, in a fit of absent-mindedness, swallowed up into a single collective consciousness.
Obviously something within me resonates to this notion. A British reviewer cited the Comprise (and to a lesser degree the Martians) in Vacuum Flowers as evidence of American fear of Communism, which I thought astute of him. But there's more to it than just that. The Comprise is a monster, and yet viewed from the right angle, it looks a lot like God. Similarly, Stations' Earth is guilty of a hideous crime, and yet her inscrutable intent and subtlety are very much in line with her appearance as the chthonic Goddess. You'll note that at the end of the novel, the bureaucrat obeys her command to "Free the machines."
NG: Stations of the Tide is an extraordinarily rich exploration of the theme of transformation or transcendence, evoking The Tempest in its literal and metaphorical sea-changes. In Stations' "Acknowledgements", you mention sundry "riffs" you "borrowed" from other writers: does the transformation theme of the book apply also in the sense that earlier literary materials are evolving and mutating in the cauldron of the novel?
MS: It was meant to do so. In all honesty, however, I have to admit that I have a compulsive tendency to "quote" other works, often but not always SF, throughout all my fiction. I have no idea why I do that, other than they're all works that moved and shook me when I first read them.
Over the course of the book, I tried to portray everything and everyone as being in the process of changing into something else. The bureaucrat, his briefcase, Undine, all go off to be something else at the end of the story. Gregorian, of course, undergoes the greatest transformation of all, from life to death. Land changes to sea, trees to kelp, birds to fish. This was all part of a complex argument that I don't think I can explain any more succinctly than I did in the novel.
As I was putting it together, though, writing about the subtle connections between negative constellations and Tantric sex and television, there were times when I thought: This is just too weird. Nobody's going to understand a word of it. Yet almost every review mentioned something I thought nobody at all, much less a reviewer, would get. It's been the most intensely-understood thing I've ever written.
NG: Another concern of Stations of the Tide seems to be that of neocolonialism: a "backward" population of, in effect, "Third Worlders," is denied technology by a bureaucratic power that "knows better" than those it controls. Here your novel, as on certain other levels, seems to bear an affinity to Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Can you comment on this?
MS: It would be hard to exaggerate the impact The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and particularly the title novella, had on me when I first read it. Not just the extraordinary beauty of the prose but the wit and economy of Wolfe's solutions to any number of technical problems. If I didn't know Gene was an engineer, I think I'd be able to guess from that work. It has the same lean elegance that really first-rate engineering has.
So there's definitely a debt. As I was writing, in fact, I thought of the bureaucrat as looking like Gene Wolfe. Gardner Dozois once compared Gene to Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, a man so ordinary-looking that if you looked away for an instant he could disappear into a crowd without a trace. I wanted that sense of someone who's unremarkable superficially and yet, inside, he's ... Gene Wolfe!
For all that, though, Stations of the Tide was not meant as a Gene Wolfe pastiche. To me, the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Autumn of the Patriarch were equally strong, and equally obvious. Also, though the technological suppression looks arbitrary and high-handed at the outset, it later turns out that the bureaucrat structure is absolutely right, that they're protecting Miranda from technologies that have already destroyed other worlds. That perception is one of many that I wanted to change over the course of the novel.
NG: The Iron Dragon's Daughter is a remarkably original take on the clichéd matter of genre Fantasy, bringing industrial capitalism into the world of Faerie: a very fecund dissonance. What were you saying about Fantasy here?
MS: On a deep and involuntary level, it's a bitter critique of what Fantasy has become. I fell in love with Fantasy when I was in high school, and read The Fellowship of the Ring over the course of one long night. I finished my homework at 11 p.m. and flipped it open, thinking to read a chapter or two before sleep, and finished the last page just as the home room bell rang at my high school the next morning. After which I sought out and read all the great fantasists -- E. R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, Fritz Leiber, Hope Mirrlees, Amos Tutuola, and so on. So that the recent slew of interchangeable Fantasy trilogies has hit me in much the same way that discovering that the woods I used to play in as a child have been cut down to make way for shoddy housing developments did.
But that's not anything I set out to do. Consciously, I was trying to write a fantasy that was true to my upbringing and experience. When I went to Ireland in 1982, I saw castles and stone circles and fairy rings and the like for the first time, and they were none of them anything like how I'd imagined them! It seemed to me, then, that Americans had a lot of nerve writing Fantasy, when so many of the essential elements were alien to us. So when I came up with the image of a changeling girl forced to work in a factory, building dragons, I recognized it as an opportunity to utilize the kind of environments I knew and had grown up with: factories, and garbage dumps, and malls and stripper bars, and to invest them with a kind of faerie glamor, which would in turn comment fruitfully on the world we have.
John Clute has argued that TIDD is actually an anti-fantasy, in that it offers up the familiar furniture of Fantasy - dragons, elves, and so on and then fails to derive from them the kind of comfort that Fantasy is expected to deliver. To which I suppose I must plead guilty. But I am surprisingly literal-minded for a fantasist, and find I cannot write about things I don't believe in. I can suspend my disbelief in dragons, but cannot then imagine them behaving in a kindlier way than their analogues (whatever those might be) in the real world would. In practice, holding a fantasy world to the same standards of consequence as the real world does result in a harrowing criticism of the Fantastic. But my intent was quite the opposite: to use the fantastic world to examine and critique the real.
NG: It's been suggested that just as Jane the changeling progresses through various stages of physical, psychological, and educational growth in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, so also you evoke successive phases of 20th Century popular culture as the novel advances. Is this an accurate perception?
MS: Perhaps. My recollection of the workings of the novel is fading as I move away from it. I do recall that the workings of Faerie grow increasingly perverse as Jane moves from gyre to gyre, and that for her progressions, I drew on stages of my own life. Not that I worked in a factory as a child (factory work came later), but I binged on Dickens when I was in grammar school, for example, which lent a ready set of metaphors for comprehending what I was going through then. And so on. Children's literature is inherently conservative, so it's only as you grow older that you progress to people who are actually writing today. So it's quite possible that's what was going on.
But this is just speculation on my part. I really can't say for sure.
NG: Your most recent novel, Jack Faust, presents an exceedingly grim vision of history and human nature. Are you increasingly a pessimist?
MS: No, in fact I've grown increasingly optimistic with age. But Jack Faust was a grim story, and once the identification has been made of Faust with Hitler, the story's logic flows only in one direction. In some ways this book is my argument with Goethe. On that level, I wanted to accomplish two things: to give Margarete her own voice, and her own tragedy; and to revoke Faust's salvation. Goethe was writing in the Age of Enlightenment, of course, and Faust's divine discontent looks very different to us from the far side of the Holocaust. In Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler, he quoted Hitler as saying, in the bunker, "Afterwards, one regrets having been so kind." So he too was unable to find content in the moment. But that fact does nothing to redeem him in my eyes.
NG: It seems to me that in Jack Faust you use alternate history much as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson did in The Difference Engine (1990), accelerating the rate of technological "advance" in past centuries as a way of highlighting present and future dangers posed by that tendency.
MS: Yes, and I have to say that compressing five hundred years of technological history into a single life-span was enormous fun. Doing so makes manifest a lot of trends of the past half-millennium, particularly the fact that a lot of our difficulties with this flood of new technologies arose from the fact that they came up too fast for people to react to them wisely. That's really a lot of what the novel is about - wisdom and its lack.
I'd argue, though, that because it's simply not possible to condense so much industrial development into a single lifetime (and I was deliberately vague about exactly how many years Faust spends in England, for exactly this reason), Jack Faust is not really an alternate history, but a fable. I meant it, in part, to be a cautionary tale for scientists. Oppenheimer recorded that when he saw the first atomic blast, at Trinity, he thought about the line from the Bhagavad-Gita, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds." I found that quite moving, that this physicist would have such a broad educational background, and that it would be of use in putting his experience into perspective. I wanted to write about intellectual arrogance and the willful blindness to consequences in such a way as to be useful to those who might find themselves in analogous situations.
NG: In adapting the Faust legend for an SF novel, how did you alter it?
MS: I'm not sure it is an SF novel, though I'm as satisfied with that label as any. I wrote it not knowing whether it was SF or Fantasy, and when it came out, its American publisher packaged it as mainstream, and its British publisher as Horror. What I did was to move the legend into a materialistic universe. Mephistopheles is of course an artificial construct, a fictive device of an alien race living in a radically different universe from ours. That was done first of all to remove God from the equation - and you'll note that once Faust is converted to atheism, the word "God" disappears entirely from the book, to reappear only on the final page - because in a Christian universe there can be, properly speaking, no tragedies. Secondly, I wanted to write the story that Christopher Marlowe began but didn't follow through on. I wanted a story about a man who sells his soul for knowledge, and then is by that knowledge damned. So I made the alien race intangible on our plane, able to influence events only through the medium of information. And of course, I played out the story on the stage of the cumulative history between Faust's time and our own.
On a literal level, I took enormous freedoms. I wanted the novel to open in Wittenberg, so Faust could nail the Periodic Table of the Elements to the cathedral door, but the very first thing I discovered in my researches was that Wittenberg was far too small for my purposes. So I multiplied its population by four. You can't do that in non-fabulist fiction. In genre, however, nothing is forbidden.
The alterations were simple. The adherences, however, were complex. There is an enormous amount of Faust-legendry, and I mined it freely for my own purposes. The quite grotesque scene near the end, where Faust torments a young Jewish couple, is only different from similar scenes in early collections of Faust tales in that it's not meant to be funny. The rhyme scheme in Goethe's Faust was borrowed from Hans Sachs, the author of "The Wittenberg Nightingale," propagandizer for Martin Luther, and the man who ended a rhymed history of Nuremberg with the couplet, "A pleasant thought to end this ditty/There's not a Jew left in the city." So I took Sachs' "limping meter" and used it to write the booklet Margarete is given, describing a prostaglandin abortion. Which rhyme is signed 'A.S.' because in the nineteenth century the poet Anna Swanwick translated Goethe into English. All of which is pointless fun, perhaps, but fun nonetheless.
NG: Returning to the topic of your short fiction: your second collection, A Geography of Unknown Lands, seems to reflect a preoccupation with the nature of death, and with posthumous landscapes, or eschatologies. Could one see A Geography as a sort of Swanwickian Book of the Dead?
MS: One could. But having admitted that, I'm not sure what to make of it. I consider myself a very conscious writer. Every word that goes into my stories has a great deal of thought behind it. I chose the composition of A Geography with care. Still, I was startled when a reviewer pointed out that all the stories were about death. I had thought that the unifying theme was fantastical locales: a planet-sized grasshopper, the suburbs of Hell, the edge of the world, and so on. I had no idea I was writing so obsessively about death.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. A few years back, I was working on three stories simultaneously ("Radio Waves," "North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy," and "Ships," which was co-written with Jack Dann) and suddenly realized that in each one, the protagonist was dead before the story began. It was a startling message to receive from the hindbrain, and I had no idea what it might have meant. Clearly, though, it's related to the composition of the collection.
It may simply be the fact that I'm approaching age fifty. Mortality has never consciously bothered me. Every few years, in the course of routine self-examination, I'll unearth the knowledge that I find the inevitability of my own death to be rather dry and uninteresting. I'll hold it up and say, "Huh." Then I'll move on to more engaging thoughts. It may be that I'm finally getting around, on an unconscious level, to dealing with questions most people sort out at a much younger age.
In any case, it's an interesting example of the part the subconscious plays in the creation of literature. There are any number of stories that stall out for reasons I cannot consciously identify. The subconscious simply refuses to cooperate. They're attempts to say something that the dark parts of the brain don't agree with.
NG: Since 1997, you've published a rapid succession of short stories, more than ever before, most of them on urgent socio-economic and gender themes (they formed half the final shortlist for the 1999 short story Hugo award, and one -- "The Very Pulse of the Machine" -- took the prize). Is this a new phase in your writing? And is a third collection imminent?
MS: I'm hoping that it means I've finally accumulated enough craft and experience to write at a less glacial speed than previously. There are so many stories I want to write! At any given time, I have something like forty partially-written works lying about in drawers and on disks that I consider alive and whose difficulties I am trying to solve. Some have only a page or two of actual text; at least one has over forty pages. There might be two or three times as many stories that I'm pretty sure will never get written. But you can never tell. A story can lie dormant for over a decade, and then burst into flame. So I never throw anything out.
Strangely enough, I have three collections imminent. The first, Tales of Old Earth, will be coming out from North Atlantic, the house that's been publishing the complete short works of Theodore Sturgeon. It contains all my significant solo work since Gravity's Angels. The second, Moon Dogs, is coming out from NESFA Press. Every year, the New England Science Fiction Association publishes a collection of work from the guest of honor for Boskone, the Boston science fiction convention. They're beautiful and valuable books, and I'm lucky enough that next year's is mine. I haven't seen the final contents page, but it will contain some non-fiction, a dramatic version of "The Dead," and several collaborative works with Gardner Dozois and the late Avram Davidson. Both collections will also contain an original story.
The third collection, Cigar-Box Faust is a lighter thing. Jacob Weissman, of Tachyon Press (who is also editing the North Atlantic collection) took it into his head to collect all of my short-short fiction. I don't think he realized how many of them there were. Originally the plan was to put out a chapbook, but now it's grown into an actual book. I think people will like it. Tachyon is very good about packaging, so nobody will be buying this thinking it's something it's not. It's an entertainment, and I hope a good one.
NG: Finally: your next novel is to be titled The Old Bone Road. How is that work progressing? And can you say anything about what sort of book it will be?
MS: As of this moment, I'm 40,000 words into the book, and chugging right along. As always, it will be done when it's done. I'll be turning it in sometime next year, in February if I'm lucky, and sometime in the summer if I'm not.
It will almost certainly be called something other than The Old Bone Road when it comes out. That's only a place-holder, while I try to come up with something more evocative. Ostensibly it's a novel about time travel and dinosaurs. But, really, it's about science as a passionate pursuit.
I got involved with dinosaurs last year when I was helping my friends Robert Walter and Tess Kissinger prepare the art show for Dinofest. Dinofest is billed as "the world's fair of dinosaurs" and it's an incredible show - dozens of dinosaur skeletons, fossil dino eggs, chunks of amber as big as your head - and I got to spend over a week working backstage. There's a symposium attached to the event, and I got to observe any number of underpaid but genuinely content paleontologists being deeply and enthusiastically involved in such questions as what degree of flexion a T. Rex had in its forelimbs. There were elder distinguished figures in the field running to hear the next paper. They were in a frame of mind in which work and play were essentially indistinguishable. I wanted to write about that.
The time travel came in, originally, as an enabling device, a way of letting paleontologists get hands-on experience with dinosaurs. But it quickly became a lot more than that. Because once you start moving people about the Mesozoic, and delving into the extinction of species, it raises the inevitability that the Cenozoic will someday end, and that someday the human race will be utterly and finally extinct. Which brings us to the question of how to properly value our fleeting and transitory lives.
Oddly enough, the book will have an upbeat ending. A lot of what seems dark and depressing when you refuse to look at it, turns out, on examination, to be reason for optimism.
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© Nick Gevers 24 December 1999