Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Swanwick, Michael

Entry updated 25 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1950-    ) US author who began to publish sf with "The Feast of St Janis" for New Dimensions 11 (anth 1980) edited by Marta Randall and Robert Silverberg, and who became known, very rapidly, as an author of intensely crafted, complex tales whose multiple layering allows his conventional sf plots and venues to be understood as exercises in mythopoesis, somewhat after the manner of Gene Wolfe's shorter works, though less perplexingly. Swanwick was not prolific in the 1980s, but his short fiction of this decade – assembled as Gravity's Angels (coll 1991) – ran a wide gamut, from "The Man Who Met Picasso" (September 1982 Omni), a slightly sentimental fable of redemption, to "Ginungagap" (Fall 1980 TriQuarterly), a Hard-SF tale set in the Asteroid belt whose imagery and language comprehensively prefigure Cyberpunk; the later "A Midwinter's Tale" (December 1988 Asimov's), though making nods to both Wolfe and A E van Vogt, seems in the end to be written in Swanwick's mature voice – warm, cruel, contemplative, moral. Increasingly his short fiction gained accolades for its polish and intensity and density of meaning: he was awarded a Hugo for best novelette for "Slow Life" (December 2002 Analog) and "Legions in Time" (April 2003 Asimov's); and a Hugo for short story for "The Very Pulse of the Machine" (February 1998 Asimov's), "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" (July 1999 Asimov's), "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" (October/November 2001 Asimov's) and "A Small Room in Koboldtown" (May-June 2007 Asimov's).

His novels show a steady progress towards the point where they are as intensely coherent as his best short fiction. In the Drift (fixup 1985), set in an Alternate History in which Three Mile Island did in fact explode, describes a balkanized America moving from Post-Holocaust trauma to Ruined Earth recidivism through a series of linked episodes which ultimately fail to cohere sufficiently, so that the transcendental implications of the final sequences seem forced. Vacuum Flowers (Mid-December 1986-January 1987 Asimov's; 1987), which builds upon the world foreshadowed in "Ginungagap", very much more cogently combines a tour-of-the-Solar-System Fantastic Voyage plot – carrying the reader downward from the corporation-dominated asteroid belt to an AI-run Earth – with a dense load of extrapolation about the nature of Identity when persona-chips can be bought and plugged in. The protagonist, a persona bum who has hijacked an attractive new identity for herself, runs an extremely complex gamut before turning – perhaps inevitably in Swanwick's work – towards Transcendence. Griffin's Egg (1991) applies his by-now-expected multiplex extrapolations to the Near Future in a tale set on the Moon – controlled by corporations – during a period when Earth seems at the edge of self-destruction, and a long cold hegira may be in store for any survivors of the Holocaust to come. The titles of both these novels serve as metaphors for the evolving human species and as banners to proclaim the continuation of the species under new conditions.

Unlike his first three books, Stations of the Tide (mid-December 1990-January 1991 Asimov's; 1991), which won a Nebula, takes place centuries hence and far from Earth, on a planet quarantined from the higher technologies (including, crucially, Nanotechnology-based fabricators) now controlled by a far-flung humanity. After a Prometheus/Caliban figure has stolen some of these technologies from the interstellar network that monitors quarantine (see Galactic Empires), the protagonist descends to Miranda, a Great Year planet due to suffer a vast periodic climatic transformation from summer to winter, traces the "thief", and apprehends what it is necessary for him to apprehend – the knowledge, the meaning of life on the planet, the meaning of his own existence, and a sense of how best (he is a Prospero figure) to relieve himself of power and servants, including an Ariel-like portable AI. The complexity of this brief, dense, and fast-moving book is very considerable; and the interstellar network – whose HQ takes the shape of a Renaissance Theatre of Memory – is convincing in its own right and as a focus for Swanwick's continued speculations about the refractions of Identity in a world where autonomous subset personality-copies operated by Computers (they resemble the Avatar "partials" in Greg Bear's Eon [1985]) do much of the work of being human.

The Iron Dragon sequence, comprising The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) and The Dragons of Babel (2008), taxingly examines the fantasy worlds which serve as a base, or as a spiralling series of Alternate Worlds, from which equally taxing Equipoisal transactions of horror and sf are undertaken. In her ambivalent climb through several palimpsested worlds, whose events replicate each other, the protagonist of the first volume finds she must pay heavy dues – being required to use Sex as payment and weapon in the search for something like a vision of the shape of the universe (a vision she does not truly wish to gain) – before finding a precarious resting point. The portrait of the dragon in this volume, which is half-AI and half fantasy Monster, constitutes a scathing analysis of the easy solutions to the problem of magic (etc) provided in the model of Rationalized Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] promulgated by John W Campbell Jr in Unknown. And the vision of a shopping mall in which time cannot pass (see Time Distortion) concentrates (see Fantastika; Horror in SF) the contemporary world into one devastating image. Less importunate in its anatomy of the world and its fictions, The Dragons of Babel is a more straightforward Hidden Monarch tale, an Urban Fantasy [for both terms see again The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] whose protagonist, haunted by a Doppelganger dragon-mind instructing him from within his consciousness, is destined to triumph, because that is what his story is about.

Later novels include Jack Faust (1997), an extremely dark (though hilarious) sf parable of modernization (see Fantastika), with Jack depicted in terms of the second part of Goethe's early nineteenth-century vision, where Faust is seen as a Utopian figure gone fatally sour [for fuller analysis see the entry on Faust in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; Swanwick's Faust is explicitly understood as the unwitting creator of Auschwitz. The mechanics of the tale are perhaps less interesting than this outcome: Mephistopheles – a name taken by representatives of a race from a Parallel World, where time runs hugely faster than in ours (see Time Distortion) – gives Faust the keys to modernization in order to ensure a rapid End of the World, and seems likely to succeed. Bones of the Earth (2002) is a Time Travel tale with Changewar elements; the speculations about the extinction event that put paid to the dinosaur era are intriguing. The Darger and Surplus sequence – comprising three stories from The Dog Said Bow-Wow (coll 2007), Dancing With Bears: The Postutopian Adventures of Darger & Surplus (2010), Chasing the Phoenix (2015) and the compendious The Postutopian Adventures of Darger & Surplus (coll 2020) – allows its scamp protagonists, a confidence artist and a Genetically Engineered dog who is not entirely grateful for his Uplift, to engage in comic and scarifying adventures in the Ruined Earth world that is the legacy left behind by the now extinct Utopians – which is to say the world-builders predicted in Jack Faust. Very sophisticatedly, figures and topoi from the SF Megatext consort without undue entanglement; they include AIs; enhanced semi-conscious Drugs; Apes as Human characters; the now-outlawed information networks necessary to the abandoned surveillance society of the twenty-first century; Zombies. Darger is named after Henry Darger; Surplus is based on the Learned English Dog from Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (1997).

Other recent work includes volumes of stories written around extremely clever conceits – including Puck Aleshire's Abecedary (coll 2000 chap), Michael Swanwick's Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna & Five British Dinosaurs (coll 2004) and The Periodic Table of Science Fiction (coll of linked stories 2005), the latter comprising 118 tales built around the Elements of the periodic table – plus collections of independent work including Moon Dogs (coll 2000) and "Not So Much" Said the Cat (coll 2016); The Best of Michael Swanwick (coll 2008) assembles work from 1980. He has also published two studies of neglected or unknown writers: What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?: James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-First Century (2007) (see James Branch Cabell); and Hope-in-the-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees (2008 chap), the first sustained study of the great English fantasy writer [for Mirrlees see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Both studies are of interest; the second is a work of genuinely original scholarship. More recently, The Third Frankenstein (2018) cleverly and rather wickedly argues that the Frankenstein Monster and Baron Frankenstein are the conjoined nightmare of Robert Walton, the arctic explorer whose ship rescues the Baron from death on the floes.

In the 1980s "debate" between "humanists" and cyberpunks (see Bruce Sterling), Swanwick was variously associated with one or both "schools"; he dealt deftly with this artefactual controversy in essays assembled as The Postmodern Archipelago (coll 1997 chap). In the end – like the similarly treated Kim Stanley Robinson – he was not to be easily assimilated. The most telling thing one can say about Swanwick, after noting the range of his intensely focused career, is that he has honoured the hardest task an sf writer can undertake: to remain contemporary.

In 2020 he became the first US winner of the initially Soviet-only and later Russian-only Aelita Award. [JC]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arkham House; Asimov's Science Fiction; Games and Sports; Gothic SF; Interzone; Mythology; Nuclear Energy; Optimism and Pessimism; Postmodernism and SF; Space Habitats; Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award; Worldcon.

Michael Jenkins Swanwick

born Schenectady, New York: 18 November 1950



Iron Dragon

Darger and Surplus

Sir Toby

individual titles

collections and stories



previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies