In “The Woman Who Shook the World Tree,” one of the entries in Michael Swanwick’s new collection of short stories, a brilliant scientist working to understand the mysteries of space-time says to his colleague and lover following their revolutionary discoveries, “The world’s the same as ever. The only thing that’ll be different is our understanding of it.” This quotation, reiterated repeatedly in various iterations throughout the collection, could stand in as a summation of the whole book. With stories that bend the genre conventions of science fiction and fantasy, moving from imaginary worlds to those that look much like our own, Swanwick constantly asks the reader to set aside the conventional notions of what is real and what is not to explore the complexities of our perceptions of every day existence.
The book starts out with “The Man in Grey,” a story that posits life is merely a stage, with its inhabitants being tightly controlled by a fleet of individuals guided by an unknown force to maintain the charade for the actors moving through their predestined lives. When one of the men in grey steps in to save a woman from a death that does not fit the script, questions not only of the nature of reality but of free will come to the fore in a story that is only a few pages long. Swanwick’s stories are peppered with explorations of the nature of death, and, in “The Man in Grey,” death is the surprising and even delightful release from a world controlled by unseen forces.
While “The Man in Grey,” hovers on the border of futuristic fantasy, “Passage of Earth” finds Swanwick more squarely in the world of science fiction, on an Earth that has been curiously invaded by a mysterious race of giant worms. While the mortician at the center of the story initially thinks his autopsy is finally shedding light on the nature of the worms, he soon finds himself imprisoned in a hell on earth consisting of his own memories of a tortured past with his ex-wife. The meaning of memory and our tendency to become entrapped in its clutches leads the reader to question how we let memories shape our own reality, and if it is possible to live outside of them. The worms act as a cipher for human memory, and their collective identity posits a way of existence both foreign and familiar to our own.
In “Of Finest Scarlet was Her Gown,” Swanwick similarly explores the nature of hell but this time deploys the powers of female sexuality to both give his character agency and restrict her choices. Swanwick has a long history of giving his female characters power almost exclusively through sexuality (in the “The Woman Who Shook the World Tree,” the plain looking main character finds agency only through a sexually charged romantic relationship with a man). In “Of Finest Scarlet was Her Gown,” the devil is a beautiful temptress and Si-Yun is a (disturbingly) 15 year old girl hoping to free her father from Hell. At the devil’s behest, she becomes a sexual plaything to any man that comes calling, while meeting the stipulation that she must always abstain from copulation itself. This gives her power over almost all the men she meets, but in the end the Devil uses Si-Yun’s newfound and confused sexuality against her. While sexual liberation may seem like a door to power for Swanwick’s female characters, the agency that these roles seem to represent is usually lacking in the actual outcome.
In his lengthy introduction, Swanwick boasts of and waxes on about his love for the medium of the short story, and of his books that I’ve read, I’d have to agree with him that it is in short fiction that he really hits his stride. Problematic elements remain – Swanwick loves female characters and has no problem placing them at the center of his narratives, but they are often reduced to being victims of their circumstances, only occasionally, as in “The Man in Grey,” (a story devoid of sex) literally dictating the terms of the narrative. That said, Swanwick’s consistent willingness to challenge our perceptions of reality puts him in the same category as Philip K. Dick and provides the mindful science fiction reader with a wonderful litany of questions to ponder long after the book has been put back on the shelf.