Elves in Armani, Dragons as Jet Fighters (plus Q&A)

Michael Swanwick

Author Guest of Honor: Michael Swanwick
by Nancy Kress

Somewhere during the twenty-or-so years I’ve known him, Michael Swanwick became my little brother and I, his big sister. So we refer to each other, although I don’t recall exactly how this happened and I’m pretty sure genealogical research would not turn up, say, a fourth cousinship. But kinship can be of the spirit as well as the genes, and in that sense, Michael and I are siblings. Or maybe I just wish we were. He is someone that any writer would like to have in the family: talented, complicated, interesting, curious, maddening. Exactly the person you want to liven up a dull family reunion.

This is easy to see in Michael’s professional life. In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute described Michael’s fiction as “intensely crafted, complex tales with multiple layering.” Seldom has Clute been so understated. A Swanwick story can feature anything: a talking twig (“‘Hello,’ Said the Stick”), time travel ranging from the Paleolithic past to a future so distant it does not include humanity (Bones of the Earth), a devious neurologically enhanced dog (“The Dog Said Bow-Wow”), elves in Armani suits and dragons as jet fighters (The Iron Dragon’s Daughter), a suitcase that can produce anything (The Stations of the Tide, and I really wanted one of those). No matter what the length or subject matter, Michael’s stories first always surprise you, and later leave you affected. The effect may be delight, but it may just as easily be despair. Or any other of a half-dozen intense emotions. His fiction is too good for easy dichotomies, and all those awards are well deserved: five Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, a Sturgeon Award, and a World Fantasy Award.

And he cares about more science fiction than just his own. I first became aware of Michael in 1986 when he published an article in Asimov’s Science Fiction entitled “A User’s Guide to the Post-Moderns.” This article divided what he called “the radioactive hothouse of science fiction” into two camps: the Humanists and the Cyberpunks. Carefully, Michael delineated who belonged in each camp, what they believed SF should be, and what characterized their fiction. He thought it would be a useful, factual sort of clarification. It became a firestorm.

People screamed at being left out. People screamed at being included. People screamed at his definitions. People screamed at his metaphors (“gunslinging” figured prominently). Now SFWA does not exactly have a reputation for quiet and rational discussion, but this controversy grew and grew. It was a Listserv-style flame war before there were Listservs, which lessened the speed of the screaming (letters and phone calls rather than instantaneous posts) but not the intensity. For me, it was quite an introduction to Michael Swanwick. (Yes, I was screaming – he left me out! – although, to be fair, he later remedied this.)

However, “science fiction writer” is not the only facet to Michael. He is also a devoted husband and father who talks often and with pride about his family. I remember one Nebula banquet in which the speaker was objected to by several SFWA members on political grounds. Several people (including nine nominees) left the banquet and waited in the hall as a protest. During this time, Michael undertook our entertainment. “I’m going to tell you a story that I tell my son Sean,” he said. “You’ll love it. Sean does.” This very long story, which Michael did not so much tell as act out, involved a moose (he put his hands to his head as antlers) and improbable, funny occurrences that kept us all in stitches. What Nebulas? What speaker? The hall was the place to be.

Another time, it was Michael who was in stitches, a sight I will never forget. He and I were among the guests at the 2007 Chengdu International Conference on the Arts in Chengdu, China. Each day, the foreign guests and their translators were picked up at the hotel and driven through a super-packed day of panels, speeches, ceremonies, readings, cultural events, speeches, sight-seeing, and more speeches. The pace was punishing. The Elves in Armani, Dragons as Jet Fighters: Author Guest of Honor: Michael Swanwick Michael Swanwick 8 experience was fascinating. The weather was over 90 degrees and usually raining. As we rode back through the twilight from a grape festival deep in the countryside, something about being on a bus ignited memories in my exhausted brain. Something from all those school days of riding home on the late bus. I got everyone – American, British, Chinese, Japanese – singing choruses of “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Michael was not singing. He was laughing so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks, and he nearly fell off his seat.

He did sing, however, at another cultural event in China. We were being entertained by dancers, singers, traditional performers. In response, the Russian cosmonaut who was also a guest stood up and sang a Russian song. He had a magnificent voice. Two Japanese writers stood up and sang a duet. They were lovely. When the English speakers stood up, it was Michael, me, Rob Sawyer, and Carolyn Clink. We gave possibly the worst rendition of “O Susannah!” in musical history. Neil Gaiman filmed it, saying he would not post it on YouTube if we gave him $500. Michael refused. The man stands by his actions.

If you get a chance to talk to my little brother during the convention, do so. You’ll enjoy him. I give you my sisterly promise.


Michael Swanwick Q&A

  • First SF/fantasy book you remember reading

    The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron.

  • Favorite television series

    Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except for the last season.

  • Favorite movie

    Shakespeare in Love. It’s porn for writers.

  • First convention you attended

    The 1974 Philcon. I was there for an hour. Long story.

    Favorite snack food

    Marianne’s home-made beef jerky.

  • Favorite color

    I am the original Man in Grey.

  • Favorite song, band, or album

    “Deirdre’s Lament” by Janis Ian. She gave me a co-writing credit. Not that I deserved it.

  • Favorite chair

    Herman Miller Aeron. My work chair.

  • Favorite vacation spot

    Cape May Point. I write in the sand and the tide erases my words until I no longer feel the need.

  • Favorite drink

    Boodles martini – dry, straight up, with an olive.

  • Favorite type of pet

    A Bengal cat from the SPCA. Her name is Miss Helen Hope Mrrrrlees.

  • Favorite quote

    “There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen. There is always a way out.”
    H. L. Mencken

  • Favorite way to relax

    Three times a year, I have a cigar and a glass of scotch in the back yard at night and think about the next big project.

  • Favorite sock color

    Black. As black as my soul.

  • Do you collect anything?

    Cocktail shakers. Books I dare not. I once found a signed Hope Mirrlees under a couch leg.

  • If I gave you an elephant where would you hide it?

    In plain sight.

  • TV Episodes: as they premiere or binge?

    As they premiere. If I have the time to binge, I’ll read a book.

  • Tea or coffee?

    Coffee. As black as my soul.

  • What gadget could you not live without?

    A pen. But I could make do with a pencil. In a pinch, a pointed stick and a slab of mud.

    What is your favorite toe and why?

    Jay Silverheels. Best Tonto ever.

  • Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly, and why?

    I already fly in my dreams. I’d like to expand that ability into the daylight hours.

  • If you were turned into a tree what kind would you be?

    An oak. It’s strong, a good home for birds, and maybe just a little bit nutty.

  • Who is your role model?

    Any writer better than me.

  • Zombies, Vampires, or Werewolves?

    No thanks. I just ate.

  • What is the oldest thing in your refrigerator right now?

    Some three-year-old gouda.