Michael Swanwick – The Dog Said Bow-Wow (2007) Review


Of the 16 short stories in this collection, 3 are Hugo Award winners, 3 more are Hugo Award nominees, 12 are Locus Awards nominees with 1 winner, and 1 Nebula nominee. This is a show of strength, this collection, and a good cross-sectional sampling of the worlds that Michael Swanwick has created. You know, I love Swanwick’s writing. He’s one of my favourite writers. And everything I read of him just reinforces that opinion. His writing has the perfect mix of high imagination, flowing, complex prose, wry sense of humor and an intuition about what would make a story fresh and interesting so that it pushes the envelopes of the fantasy and SF genres.

I would like to talk about three small groups of stories in this collection that also relate to other novels Swanwick has written. This will give you an idea of the type of content in the stories, and may lead you to try out his other books.

Three stories concern the funny adventures of the duo Darger and Surplus. These two are debonair con artists, and try to bamboozle their victims in a post-apocalyptic, post-utopian world that is a mix of crazy biotechnology and a world that has regressed to a pre-WW1 social system. Surplus is a dog (Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, but call him Sir Plus, or surplus), a dog that walks upright, like from a storybook, well dressed and a gentleman. He’s from the kingdom of west Vermont but arrives in England, only to meet a shifty-eyed rogue named Darger and they cook up a plan to steal jewels from the Buckingham Labyrinth, home of the English queen Gloriana, whose 36 brains are in a hypercube configuration to make up for the lack of computers since AI demons turned the Internet into a netherhell. All the while they’re being chased by Lord Coherence-Hamilton and they leave a right mess behind them.

These stories are a masterclass in complex world-building without using any info-dumps, instead relying solely on dialogue and scenery to explain this far-future world. Over the past years, Swanwick wrote a couple more Darger and Surplus capers, and they are all now collected in the 2020 publication The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus. I hope to read it one day; it’s probably great.

This sounds all a bit cutesy and juvenile but Swanwick’s writing often has an edge to it and is not wary of putting sex and violence into his stories, including the Darger and Surplus ones. And it is precisely in this space that Swanwick likes to move; in the contrast between the of kind of fantasy elements that are normally used in juvenile fiction and fairy tales, and rough adult themes. The following stories will make this even clearer.

Three stories are set in industrialised Faerie. A dark and cruel place, because magic is scary. These stories are more like crime fiction, but with the unsettling addition of magic. One is about a fey who frees a fox-woman who then becomes his partner in crime; a story full of twists and turns and set in locations like a train, a bar and a landfill. ‘A Small Room in Koboldtown’ is closer to a parody of Chinatown and ‘The Bordello In Faerie’ is about a man getting addicted to elf sex, like a metaphor for porn addiction. Two of these stories Swanwick incorporated into his full novel The Dragons of Babel (2008). Yeah his novels are pretty much Frankenstein-creations of short stories.

Also, and this makes Swanwick alright in my book, he loves dinosaurs. Dinosaurs bring out his gentler side. It seems tradition by now that every Swanwick short story collection must have at least a couple of dinosaur stories. ‘Triceratops Summer’ and ‘A Great Day For Brontosaurs’ is today’s selection. These stories concern a laboratory in Vermont opening portals to the Jurassic or Cretaceous and sometimes things come through to our age, like a herd of Triceratops. He liked dinosaurs so much that he once wrote a flash fiction collection with a story for each Dinosaur genus (Michael Swanwick’s Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna (2004)), and one of his most celebrated stories, ‘Scherzo with Tyrannosaur’ was expanded into a full novel: Bones of the Earth (2002).

These three sets of stories alone make the collection a wonderful read, and in addition we get some astronauts-in-danger tales as well. As I said, a cross-sectional sample of Swanwick’s favourite locales, and a jumping board for exploring the rest of his bibliography. Again, this book reinforced my opinion of Swanwick as one my favourite writers ever.

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6 Responses to Michael Swanwick – The Dog Said Bow-Wow (2007) Review

  1. bormgans says:

    That’s high praise. I’ll try to start the Iron Dragon’s Daughter in February or March.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never heard of this before but it does sound quite interesting… I’ll have to look into this, especially for the world-building. Thanks for sharing, Jeroen!

    Liked by 1 person

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