Book Review: The Best of Michael Swanwick

I’m going to begin with a bit of name-dropping here; it’s unintentional but inevitable if I want to explain to you how I came to hear about this book. I was chatting with Michael Swanwick (there it is) at a Clarion West gathering a few years ago, and he mentioned that a best-of collection of his short stories had come out years before. Maybe one reason I hadn’t heard of it was that it appeared in a high-priced limited edition hardcover and never made the transition to paperback. Shortly after that meeting, I managed to find a fairly inexpensive copy of the book online and bought it. I just checked now, and on Amazon, at least, used copies are selling for fifty to one hundred fifty dollars. However, you can get a low-priced Kindle edition.

It may not be name-dropping to all of you, though; Swanwick is mostly known in the science fiction and fantasy field, where he has won numerous awards, including for several of the stories in this book. I started reading his stories when I was still living in Greece in the mid-nineties, when he was winning one award after another. In one year he dominated the short story category for the Hugo Award with three of his stories out of the five nominees. (All of those are in this book.)

It’s an impressive book, strong and heavy, printed on thick paper. But the most important part, of course, is what’s inside. The stories are presented in chronological order with publication dates from 1980 to 2007. This allowed me, as I read, to notice a steady progression in Swanwick’s short story writing expertise.

The early stories are full of interesting ideas, but they are long, and their plots veer all over the place. However, there is a dramatic and noticeable change about halfway through the book, starting with the stories published in 1995. They get shorter, more succinct, and very much more focused. This begins with “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” an amusing tale about a hell-bound train, “Radio Waves,” a frightening story about life after death, and “The Dead,” a chilling tale about commercialized zombies.

In these stories, though, Swanwick is just warming up. He goes on to near-perfect stories such as “Radiant Doors,” “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” “Wild Minds,” and “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur.” These stories are lean, incisive, fascinating, and for the most part dark; they are among the finest science fiction stories ever written.

My favorite story in the book, “Wild Minds,” is also the shortest. It’s a prime example of the principle that verbosity often does not equate with excellence. The plot is simple. A man meets a woman at a businessperson’s orgy. He is a “wild mind,” meaning someone who has chosen not to modify their brain for super intelligence while discarding their emotions in the process. The woman is modified, but she has to go in for some sort of servicing, and in the meantime her emotions are poking through. She is also a salesperson, and she allows the protagonist a brief glimpse of what it means to be enhanced. It is a wonderful sensation, but it makes him more determined than ever not to do it when he realizes how much of his humanity will be compromised. This story perfectly captures one of science fiction’s most important themes: how technology impacts the lives of humans, although it inevitably offers no easy answers.

So this collection has some of the best science fiction stories ever written, but they are all in the second half of the book. I think if I had been the editor, I might have shuffled the contents around a bit differently. Be that as it may, it is what it is, and it is definitely worth persevering to come to the prime works of a master short story writer.

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