Saturday, February 4, 2012

'Tales of Old Earth' by Michael Swanwick

Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick.

Michael Swanwick is one of the more adventurous writers in the already imaginative field of speculative fiction. He is generally an economical storyteller and on occasion I felt myself craving more flesh and a slower pace, but that is not to dismiss an excellent collection. There is not much that Swanwick shies away from, which makes the childish cover misleading, especially considering the sex scene (including vivid and creative foreplay), which takes up much of the story in 'Midnight Express'.

Swanwick meddles with time past (as the title suggests) as well as the present and future, and there are also all those alternative realities too.

Although 'Scherzo the Dinosaur' and 'The Very Pulse of a Time Machine' are much lauded Hugo Award Winners they are not the highlight stories in this eclectic collection. 'Riding the Gigantosaur', 'Microcosmic Dog', 'Mother Grasshopper', 'North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy' and 'The RaggleTaggle Gyspsy-O' are all fabulous tales.

The first of the before mentioned, 'Riding the Gigantosaur', places the reader into the Cretaceous period with a comical story that completely captures the imagination, whereby a wealthy wheeler and dealer learns some humility as a gigantosaur (do not ask but read the story). 'Mother Grasshopper' deals with the ideas of time, life and death; all set on a planet that is a massive grasshopper, which could be metaphorically perceived as the pest, that we as humans are represented as in this morose tale. 'North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy' entails a train of passengers travelling to Hell and successfully explores issues of morality and liberation with Swanwick's ever vibrant and colourful characters. It is also a tale you can sink your reading teeth into at 22 pages. 'Microcosmic Dog' cleverly examines reality when Ellen Gillespie (with a name like that I imagine that Swanwick is an avid jazz fan) has a talking dog left in her luxurious New York apartment. From then on things are not as always as they have seemed. 'The Raggle Taggle Gyspy-O' is a time travelling adventure, full of romance and heroism, in which the idea unravels that memories are required for immortality. Once again, an early felatio scene made me briefly wonder why any Swanwick anthology would be marketed in this fashion - although sales to a wider audience is the blindingly obvious answer.

 'In Concert' humorously and uniquely parallels the Communist movement with the rock music movement when the aged lead rocker, Lenin, pounds out lyrics like, 'You have nothing to lose but your chains.' Other strong stories include: 'Wild Minds', 'Radiant Doors' and 'The Changeling's Tale'.

Tales of Old Earth is layered with meaning and that is the beauty of Swanwick's short fiction: he can encourage a reader to reflect but he never loses their attention. And Swanwick at his worst -  in this collection I would say it is the Nebula Award winning, 'Ancient Engines' (the android tale tasted like a sedated version of PK Dick)- is still far better than many other writers in the field. Taking a leap into Michael Swanwick's bizarre world is something that will be ingrained in readers' minds long after they have finished reading.


  1. Swanwick sounds great - I'll have to check him out. The book cover looks like something from the 1970's

  2. The old ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is truer than ever with this one!

    Swanwick is well known in the speculative fiction field (especially in the US) but here in Australia he is tricky to find but worth tracking down. His work is beginning to appear in more literary anthologies - it's great whenever those divisive boundaries are broken.

    I found ‘Tales of Old Earth’ in Shafto Lane but for more of Swanwick, Planet Books in Beaufort St is your best bet