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Book: Michael Swanwick, cigar box faust

In the long run, it might well bring a burst of new energy into the field. When "wonder war" stories are popular, they're typically the stories that new young writers begin with, because they don't require much characterization and there's the potential for the sort of cleverness that the young excel at. So they can be lots of fun. And if you start out by having fun, you're more likely to go the distance. Even an acknowledged high-art writer like Tom Disch... If you look at his early stuff, dark though it was, he was clearly having a ball.

None of which justifies the unprovoked invasion of another country, of course. But Dick Cheney and company didn't invade Iraq for our sakes, so our consciences are clean.

Crescent Blues: On your web page it says you started this petition because the Science Fiction Writers of America refused to organize one. What do you hope this petition will accomplish now that U.S. forces are occupying Iraq?

Michael Swanwick: It helps to keep perspective. In the grand scheme of things, neither I nor the signers of the petition nor SFWA is of much importance or influence here. And given that the current administration stated flat-out that they were going to have the war whether the American people wanted it or not, there never was much of a chance of anybody stopping it.

What happened was, when I heard that Sam Lundwall had quit an organization he'd been active in for decades over this issue, it touched my conscience. It seemed to me that the least I could do was go on record as opposing the war. So I wrote the statement and told a few friends about it, and it turned out there were quite a few people who wanted to do something, however small, to register their opposition.

I've actually had people praise me for the "courage" it took to post that statement. No. It took no courage whatsoever. Nobody's going to smash down my door in the middle of the night, or blacklist me, or burn a cross in my yard. This is still, despite all the assaults being made on our liberties, a free country. It's an extraordinary enterprise whose special virtues are well worth defending and preserving from its enemies both abroad and in the Oval Office. So, being born here, I have an obligation to speak out.

As an American citizen, I can do no less.

As for what might be achieved, this and a hundred thousand other acts of conscience might help muffle the drumbeat to cash in Social Security and buy a few more wars in Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, to mention only places which people within the administration are currently lobbying to invade. Also, the presence of so many American names on the petition is at least a small gesture of reassurance toward such former American allies as Canada, France, and Mexico that not all Americans are caught up in an Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator-X death fantasy.

Crescent Blues: Which of your stories or novels do you feel would make the best movie and why?

Book: Michael Swanwick, The iron dragons duaghter

Michael Swanwick: Midway through Spirited Away, there was a scene where Chihiro races across collapsing industrial pipes, and another set in an institutional kitchen with grease-stained windows that could have been taken directly from the factory section of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Hayao Miyazaki understands the grimy beauty that such places can have, and their evocative power, right down to the bone. I'd love to be able to set him loose on Melanchthon and the hammer giants and the meryons and... well, pretty much everything in that book. Unfortunately for me, he doesn't need my input. The stories he comes up with on his own work just fine.

One Hollywood producer swore to me that he would've bought Bones of the Earth if it weren't for the fact that there's a dinosaur movie already in production. Maybe so, maybe no. But there's all that great technology for producing realistic dinosaurs -- it would be nice to see them portrayed on the screen as real animals, rather than as just monsters.

Crescent Blues: Your stories and novels include a wide range of subjects from chemistry to dinosaurs to zombies and elves. Do you have any particularly favorite subjects you like to write about?

Michael Swanwick: It sounds banal, but I like outer space a lot, particularly the real estate within the solar system, because people really are going to go out there, explore it, exploit it, probably even colonize it. The three biggest events in the history of life on this planet were its initial appearance, its emergence from the ocean onto land and its emergence from Earth into the larger universe. We're present at an event potentially more significant that the entire history of mankind! How could anybody not want to write about that?

Book: Michael Swanwick, moon dogs

There's a strange pessimism afoot about the future of space exploration, as if it were a prelapsarian technology we've lost and are never going to be good enough to deserve again. That's nonsense. There are people in orbit right now, and non-NASA space programs around the world. China has a moon program! Look at the next hundred years and tell me how, short of a catastrophic industrial collapse, we're going to avoid going out there.

The Shuttle disasters were heartbreaking, because they killed people who were among the best this planet has to offer while they were engaged in the peak accomplishment of their lives. But honest to God, they knew what the dangers were. They weren't called "brave" just out of politeness. They had courage and vision and knew what they were doing and where they wanted to go. I wish we had politicians who could say the same.

I also like to write about technology that changes people in some fundamental way, that challenges our ideas of who and what we are.

Crescent Blues: People have drawn parallels between your Jack Faust and Hitler? What attracts you, as a writer, to legendary and near legendary characters?

Michael Swanwick: I made those parallels implicit in Jack Faust, because I wanted to do a critique of the last five hundred years of scientific and industrial history. I was a science kid growing up, so I identified with Faust's ambition, but since I was a Roman Catholic his willingness to sell his soul for knowledge was literally terrifying to me. Most non-Catholics don't take Hell very seriously, possibly because they don't have nuns drawing verbal pictures of it daily in extremely graphic Grand Guignol terms. So I had to bring in things like the Holocaust, in order to make my point, which was that there are limits to how much knowledge is desirable. Yes, there are indeed some things "Man was not meant to know." The sound of a child screaming in agony is one of them. The fact that it happens every day changes nothing.

Crescent Blues: Do you frequently draw your characters from real people or famous personalities?

Actually, I tend to avoid it. There are a number of historical personages in Jack Faust, but they tend to be people you'd have to do a lot of research to identify. The poet Richard Sbrulius, for example, or the scholar Balthasar Phaccus, but no Queen Elizabeth or Sir Francis Drake, though they're around somewhere in the background. Partly it's that the fame card has been overplayed in our field. But James Patrick Kelly has observed that I never write sympathetically about the rich and powerful. So it may just be that my experience with that class of people has predisposed me against them.

Crescent Blues: What methods do you use to research for your novels? How important do you feel good research is in speculative fiction?

Michael Swanwick: I'm not a very organized researcher. I'll read enormous amounts of related non-fiction, constantly digressing from the subject at hand (Quick! I need a book on Bruegel -- and information on robot fish!), simply because I don't know what I'm looking for until I find it. For Bones of the Earth, I attended symposia, traveled to distant museums to look at specific fossils, and interviewed paleontologists about their work and their feelings toward it. I called up Tom Holtz, who is an authority on theropods, several times a week with questions -- he came up with two separate techniques for killing a juvenile tyrannosaur using only a pointed stick, both of which I used -- and as I finished each chapter I ran it past dinosaur professionals Bob Walters and Ralph Chapman, who gently pointed out to me the many, many mistakes I'd made.

Even at that, errors got through. My editor sent galleys to Dr. Michael Brett-Surman for a blurb, which he very graciously provided, along with a sheath of corrections he wanted made. Forty-eight of which have been incorporated into the paperback edition.

Book: Michael Swanwick, bones of the Earth

Good research is to speculative fiction what good engineering is to a bridge. Mostly people aren't interested in the engineering; they just want to get where the bridge goes. Similarly, most of the research for a novel isn't going to show. You need to know that an elephant can't get all four feet off the ground at once just so the knowledgeable reader won't throw the book down in disgust when your elephant nimbly leaps over a ravine. But you don't want to have one of your characters saying, "As you know, Fred, an elephant can't get all four feet..."

Bones was an exception to this rule, because paleontologists really do eat, drink, and breathe their science. They talk about it all the time, and their knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic. So having them talk any other way would be a violation of mimesis.

Crescent Blues: Do you use different research techniques for writing fantasy to the methods you use to write SF?

Michael Swanwick: Hard to say. Fantasy -- my fantasy at least -- tends to be very much rooted in place, so I'll spend a lot of time searching out locales similar to those in my fantasy, so I can visualize them. For The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I was forever poking around in old factories and clambering over rusting locomotives. The Baldwynne Steam Dragon Works was laid out identically to Baldwin Locomotive's long-defunct Eddystone plant, because I found a pamphlet mapping the entire site, with photos of the buildings and explanations of what was done in each of them. Knowing exactly what was where and the distances from one place to another made that section far more convincing than it would have been if I'd merely invented each building as the plot required it and then slapped it down someplace handy.

Then again, for Stations of the Tide, which was science fiction, I created a land which was an blend of Tidewater Virginia and northern Vermont, up around Derby Line, two areas that I knew extremely well. (I used to go out in the woods and dig for sea shells, when I lived in the Tidewater.) So maybe there's not a great difference after all.

Crescent Blues: Have you ever considered writing in other genres? If so, which ones and why?

Michael Swanwick: I just follow the idea where it takes me, without worrying too much about categories. Stations of the Tide was a very fantasy-flavored science fiction novel and The Iron Dragon's Daughter was a very SF-flavored fantasy novel, so when I came to Jack Faust I was very curious how it would be received. As SF -- because it's a mad scientist story? Or as fantasy -- because it was a deal-with-the-devil story? As it turned out, in the States it was packaged as mainstream and in Britain as horror. I can easily imagine myself writing something mainstream -- though a odd kind of mainstream -- completely by accident.

Come to think of it, The Sleep of Reason is, for the most part, mainstream. It's shot through with fantastic elements, but much of it is simply an exploration of the ways in which human beings are no damn good -- a classic theme of literature from the beginning.

I've been writing more non-fiction lately. I wrote a long biographical essay on the fantasist Hope Mirrlees for Foundation. Mirrlees was an interesting woman -- a friend of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, wealthy, aristocratic, and the author of one influential modernist poem, "Paris," and a very important fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. Researching her put me in touch with feminist academics, British antiquarians, and her nephew, Count Robin de La Lanne Mirrlees, which was a hoot. To an American, getting mail from a count is like hearing from a talking rabbit, something totally outside of one's normal experience.

Book: Michael Swanwick, being gardner dozois

I also published a book-length interview, Being Gardner Dozois, which was an examination of all of Gardner's short fiction in order of publication, and a shorter interview with Greer Gilman examining her story, "Jack Daw's Pack." These were not very profitable projects monetarily, but they involved me with the prose in a way that's not possible with fiction. They were done just for the fun of it.

Crescent Blues: What type of books do you like to read for pleasure?

Michael Swanwick: All of 'em, fiction and non-fiction alike. I still read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, which after all these years of publication is more of an accomplishment than you would think. Writers tend to stop reading in their own area after a time, simply because you get so familiar with it that it becomes increasingly harder to find something that astonishes and amazes. But it's a mistake, particularly for science fiction writers. You can tell when they stopped reading the competition because their work fossilizes at that period and begins to grow stale and smell quaint. In stark contrast, a writer like Tom Purdom, who began selling in the 1950s, is still capable of going one-on-one with writers like Steve Baxter or Ken MacLeod in large part because he knows what the competition is up to and what standards he has to match.

The only area of writing that I enjoy but (usually) don't read is mysteries, and that's simply because avoiding them frees up so much reading time. I met Lawrence Block at a reading and bought a book so I could get his autograph, and when I read it I immediately felt the urge to read a dozen more by him, and then start burning through the other mystery writers I'd somehow missed. But I fought it down. I'm convinced this is why so many people have such a reflexive down on science fiction -- because if they admitted it was literature, they'd lose so much time catching up that they never would get around to reading Proust.

Crescent Blues: Can you give our readers a sneak preview of your current projects?

Book: Michael Swanwick, tales of old earth

Michael Swanwick: In short fiction, not counting the short-shorts, I've got 37 stories alive and partially written and ideas for more than I can count. These include a couple more Darger and Surplus stories, a dino story or two, a really weird collaboration with Eileen Gunn, and something called "Urdumheim," which I began the other day and may turn out to be the strangest fantasy story I've ever written. Some of these thirty-seven stories will probably never be finished, though I have no idea which ones. Sometimes I'll pick up something I gave up on as dead decades ago and have it burst into flame. You never can tell.

My next novel is in the early stages so it's hard to say what it'll be. Most likely either a hard SF novel featuring Lizzie O'Brien, the protagonist of "Slow Life," or a hard fantasy that takes up where "King Dragon" (coming soon in The Dragon Quintet, edited by Marvin Kaye) leaves off. With an outside chance of it being about an airship voyage around the world, starting from 1816 Philadelphia. Or else something else entirely.

Crescent Blues: CB likes to give its interviewees an open forum where they can talk about anything they like, no holds barred. Have you got anything you'd like to talk about that we haven't covered?

Michael Swanwick: I don't have any complaints right now, so I'll take advantage of your offer by giving the hopeful gonnabe writers out there a little useful advice. On those rare occasions when I've taught writing, the students always want to know two things: What kind of stories editors are really anxious to buy, and what hot new movement is around on which they might be able to leap aboard.

My answer to the first question always disappoints them. I say that editors want well-written SF stories with spaceships and science. And they do! Back when Ellen Datlow was fiction editor of Omni, and thus widely reviled as Great Satan Literature herself, she asked what I was up to, and when I described a fantasy I was really excited about, she looked disappointed and said, "That's nice, Michael, but I want something good with spaceships and real science in it." Gardner Dozois put it even more bluntly. I went by to visit him once, and as I was leaving he stood on the stoop and bellowed after me, "Write me some more science fiction, Michael! None of this fantasy crap! None of this magic realism crap! Hard science fiction - with spaceships!!!"

Of course the kicker here is that both Ellen and Gardner expect good stories -- just throwing in a spaceship is not going to do it for them. Which brings me to my second, even more disappointing answer: It doesn't matter whether or not there's a hot new movement around because by the time anybody notices it, it's too late to become a part of it. Bill Gibson and Bruce Sterling did extremely well with cyberpunk, but the second-generation cyberpunks did not, partly because they came on board too late and partly because so much of their work was imitative and derivative. So I always tell my students: You are the next big thing. Those qualities and insights that you as a writer have and nobody else does are exactly what the editors are looking for. They want to be amazed and astounded. They want to see something new.

So if you want a shortcut to sales and popularity, go with spaceships and real science. It worked for Larry Niven. But don't write imitation Niven stories or imitation anybody stories. Imagine it afresh, from the ground up. Make it new. Make it your own. That's what the editors want. And it's what we readers want.

Click here to learn more about Michael Swanick.

Stephen Smith