1. You've been described as a chameleonic writer. Certainly, your work contains elements from many genres. Would you find it a constraint to work within the limits of pure SF or Fantasy?
Michael Swanwick: It is my good fortune that most of what I write falls squarely within the recognized bounds of one genre or another, so I have the luxury of never worrying about what genre any particular work falls into. When I was writing Jack Faust, my retelling of the Faust legend, for example, I had no idea whether it was fantasy, because it was a deal-with-the-devil story, or science fiction, because it was a mad scientist story. In the event, my British publisher packaged it as horror and my American publisher as mainstream. So long as it's published and read, what do I care about marketing categories?
2. The story "Ginungagap" is seen by many as a forerunner to what is now commonly referred to as Cyberpunk. Do you think the story, and your other work at the time, had some influence on the CP aesthetic?
MS: Not specifically. But it was part of the same phenomenon that gave rise to cyberpunk. There were a lot of influences in the air back then. We all had common in-genre heroes -- Dick, Bester, Russ, and Delany, most obviously -- and out-of-genre influences like Thomas Pynchon and William S. Burroughs. We were all writing stuff that was clean, hot, fast, and crammed with innovation. We were all bored with the consensus future that the field had built for itself. The big divide between humanists and cyberpunks was completely artificial, something that was created by Bruce Sterling for purposes of literary propaganda. (I did the same thing, admittedly, in an essay I wrote at the time called "A User's Guide to the Postmoderns," whose purpose was to bring attention to then-neglected authors like Bruce, Stan Robinson, Pat Cadigan, and Jim Kelly.) If you look at the work itself, at its aspirations and presuppositions, Bruce has a lot more in common with arch-humanist John Kessel than he does with Cory Doctorow or Charles Stross, staunchly post-cyberpunk though the latter are.
There was a moment there, when the lines were being drawn up, when I might have been defined into the cyberpunk fold. But I hung out with the wrong people, so I was cast into the outer darkness. I really ducked the bullet on that one. That sort of label follows you around for the rest of your life. Imagine having to answer questions about cyberpunk at age eighty!
3. You've written collaborations with, amongst others, Gardner Dozois and William Gibson. How does the writing process differ when working with someone?
MS: They're all different. When I began working with Gardner and Jack Dann, in various combinations, I was just starting out and these guys were big names. More importantly, they both understood fiction up and down; Gardner was a legendary story doctor even then, before he became editor of Asimov's. So I did all the first drafts, after we'd brainstormed the plots out in detail, the typescript would pass back and forth, and Gardner would always end up with final polish. Because it's important for a story to have stylistic unity and Gardner's prose was particularly high-gloss. Those stories were a learning experience for me. They were my post-graduate education.
When I collaborated with Gibson, he was an unknown, like me. But there was a buzz about him, among those who cared about new writers. So I wanted to see what chops he had. I wanted to see him in action. What I found out was that on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph level, he was an extraordinarily fine craftsman. All the perfectly deserved fuss over the big issues in his fiction tends to obscure this fact. The man can write like a sonofabitch.
Writing with Bill was more like my solo work than the Gardner and Jack stuff was because -- and this is going to sound arrogant, but that was before Neuromancer -- I didn't acknowledge him as being a better writer than myself. We were both making it up as we went along. So the experience of not knowing where this was going but suspecting it was somewhere exciting was already familiar to me.
Sometimes a collaboration goes bust, for reasons that reflect poorly on neither of the writers. These things are like marriages or soufflés. There's a special chemistry, a kind of magic, involved. They need a light touch.
4. "Magic Realism" is a term that has been used to describe the writing of a host of writers, including yours. Are more SF writers incorporating elements of fantasy into their work? Do you feel there is a general distancing from hard SF, a la Clarke and Asimov, on the part of modern writers?
MS: I could write an entire book in reply to this and not exhaust your question. But briefly: it would take some rigorous research to determine whether or not the use of fantasy in SF is increasing. The problem is that our common-sense perceptions are unreliable. Everybody "knows" that science fiction is mostly written by men and fantasy is largely written by women, right? But fifteen years ago, I went to a bookstore with separate SF and fantasy sections and did a title by title and author by author count. It turns out that in science fiction men outnumbered women by nine to one. So far, as expected. But in fantasy men outnumbered women by almost two to one. So we can't trust our initial impressions.
Also, the swapping of genetic material between the genres has been going on for a long time. Way back when, before Tolkien hit paperback, fantasy was as good as unpublishable and fantasy writers had to disguise their work as something else -- sometimes as Arthuriana, but more usually as science fiction. Leigh Brackett's Mars stories, some of the most moodily decadent fantasies ever written, routinely began with her Earth-born hero riding away from the spaceport and then suffering a spill which caused him to lose his blaster. After which he had to fight with brawn and sword because the Martians themselves were all too proud to use handguns. Tear off that first page and you have unalloyed fantasy. But the ritual genuflection before the science fiction icons made it possible for her editors to pretend it was acceptable.
A lot of writers grew up reading this intermingled genre and saw nothing wrong with using whatever elements came to hand, so long as they fit. In this post-Tolkien era, it's been possible for the natural fantasists to separate themselves from SF and a lot have (without rancor, I hasten to add) done just that. But they can't undo the effects of that long association. They may not be using time machines and teleporters, but they are utilizing tricks of characterization, world-building, and plot that were once native to science fiction. The influence goes both ways.
Me, I have no interest whatsoever in genetic purity, so long as the work itself is good. This isn't the Kennel Club. Let a thousand mongrels bloom!
For the other half of your question, though, I'd have to say, No! Quite the opposite! Rather than writers distancing themselves from hard SF, there's been a general movement to embrace it. Hard SF was always a rare beast simply because it's, well, "hard" -- difficult to write. But now, with folks like Stephen Baxter and Brian Stableford and Nancy Kress and Greg Egan wandering the Earth, rather than being a virtuous oddity, it's seen as the defining core of the genre.
A couple of years ago I wrote a hard SF story called "The Very Pulse of the Machine," just to prove to the world and myself that I could. When you're perceived as a "literary" writer, it's assumed you can't do the science. Nobody ever includes Gene Wolfe on the core list of hard SF writers, and yet a story like "Alien Stones" should rightly be considered one of the classics of the sub-genre. So I cast "Pulse" in a very pared-down prose. Short sentences. Extreme emotions flatly described. Just so the readers would be forced to consider the story's merits as hard SF and nothing else. And it won a Hugo! I didn't set out for that to happen. I wrote "Pulse" for the sheer joy of creating it. But the prestige of hard SF is so great that the fans wanted to reward me for essaying the form.
5. It is difficult for any writer to explain their chosen profession. Usually, there is something that, consciously or subconsciously, propelled them into a need to write. Would you be able to identify this specific something?
MS: The late John Gardner said that writers are hurt into writing. I used to think that was tripe. Then one day in the local public library I saw the title on the spine of a nonfiction book on the "new books" shelf and thought, "Wow! That cuts right to the heart of everything I'm writing about!" I was quite excited. I knew that I was going to get a story out that book, whatever it was. Then, when I pulled it out and saw what the subtitle read -- what the real topic was -- everything fell into place. I saw not only why I'd become a writer, but why I'd made such a botch of my life for so many years. It was a revelatory moment. I stood frozen with wonder. Then I slid the book back into place, unopened.
So, yes, I can identify that specific something. And, no, not that I want to be a tease but I'm not going to tell you what that was. Except to say that the first several things that will come to your mind (sex, drugs, abuse) aren't it.
6. Do you often find autobiographical instances in your work without realizing, at the time of writing them, that you were doing so?
MS: No, not really. They're in there, mind you! But writing is such a great labor for me, and I go over each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word, so many, many times that I'm consciously aware of everything I put into my work.
There's a period of one to three years after I finish a novel when, because I worked on it so intensely closely, I can answer any question, no matter how trivial, about it. Then, as I get involved in other things, it goes away. I no longer remember the names of most of the characters in The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Sometime back, a friend told me she'd spotted a paragraph in Jack Faust where I'd hidden my name in candle flames and swans rising from a lake, and I told her she was out of her tree. Then, three days later, I thought: wait a minute. I worked hard to put that in.
7. You are certainly a prolific writer -- a mere glance at your bibliography can attest to that. How much work do you get done in a day, on average? Ever get yanked by the scruff from Messrs. Writer's Block & Co.?
MS: I only look prolific because I publish so much. I write a couple of pages on a good day. Eight on a great one. But because I have a years-deep backlog of half-written stories, which I'll pick up at slow moments and work on, just to see if I've solved whatever problems have kept them from completion, for every page I write of something that stalls out, there's another page of a previously-stalled story that reaches completion. So it's all a conjuring trick, really. Misdirection and mirrors.
I've only had one genuine and undeniable writer's block, but it was a real bear. It was after I'd made a couple of sales but before anything was published. I'd workshopped a story at Philford, probably the most influential genre workshop that nobody's ever heard of (we deliberately kept it low-profile, and it was directly responsible for Sycamore Hill), and after I'd taken everybody's suggestions and rewritten it up to novella length, I set to work on expanding it into my first novel (it was a fix-up) and stalled out. For nine months I wrote every day, often eight to ten hours a day, without producing a single usable sentence. I tried everything! I'd have a stranger walk into the room with a gun. "Holy cow," somebody would say, "he's got a gun!" Everybody would begin talking and after a couple of pages it would be obvious that nothing was really happening and I'd tear it all up and throw it away. It was as if all your friends had come over for pizza and then never left. Much talk, many words, no plot.
But every day I would sit down and write, for hour after hour after hour. It took nine long and terrifying months, but eventually my hindbrain got the message: not giving me any ideas wasn't going to get it out of sitting down in front of a keyboard. So it gave in. I'd outlasted the bastard.
During that nine-month-long writer's block, I lost my job, proposed to Marianne, and got married. Turning thirty, another thing which happened to me then, was nothing!
8. Is ours still a brave new world? Or are we squirming around amongst the more fragrant moss of humanity's skirting boards?
MS: Did you know that Mitsubishi makes robot fish? Is that cool or what? I just spent two weeks in Finland and then I expect to spend another two in Oregon, and then I'm flying to San Francisco for Tachyon Publications' anniversary party. It wasn't that long ago that only the extremely wealthy could have a travel itinerary like that. Meanwhile, Hubble is pumping out new photos of the universe, planets are being discovered around distant stars, children are being cured of diseases that used to kill them, and the new hybrid cars are so sexy-hot that I've just gotta have one!
Yeah, we've got real problems, but nothing like those that faced Germany in 1934. Or the citizens of Rome at the end of the Empire. Curmudgeon though I am, I agree with the late and sorely missed Charles Sheffield that if we can manage to survive the next hundred years, we'll have the tools to make a paradise out of this world. Being human, we'll still be malcontents, of course. But -- a malcontent in paradise? Sounds good to me.
9. What are you working on right now?
MS: Everything in the world. I'm writing a fantasy novel and researching a science fiction one. The fantasy opens with a Vietnam-style war in Faerie which drives its protagonist out of his native village into the larger and stranger world, toward a destiny unlike any he could have imagined for himself. It won't be anything like what the average reader has been conditioned to expect from a fantasy novel either. People who want the pleasure of knowing what's coming should look elsewhere.
The science fiction novel will take Lizzie O'Brien, the protagonist of "Slow Life," pretend that story never happened, and send her on a voyage of discovery to one of the moons of Jupiter, there to encounter something that I, at least, find intellectually engaging.
I am also working on dozens of short stories, including the next Darger and Surplus (currently paused at the moment when Surplus says to Darger, ". . . Your mob awaits"), some collaborations, at least one work of hard SF, several fantasies. . . . Words, words, words, as Hamlet said. I'll need a long life to get through everything I have in mind.
10. And now, the lighter side of SF: Which is the better show: Star Trek: Enterprise, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager?
MS: I'm afraid I'd have to vote for none of the above. It's not that I'm too High Art to watch television -- I got quite addicted to Buffy and Angel and Babylon 5 and it broke my heart that Firefly never managed to cohere into something worth watching -- but that the whole Star Trek universe is so stiff-shouldered, declamatory, and artificial. There's no passion, no wonder, no sense that there's anything at stake.
Except the Borg. I like the Borg. They've got a lot of potential. It's a pity that the franchise has never really done anything interesting with them.
11. When you start writing something, do you normally have the story laid out, or do you prefer to develop it along the way?
MS: Both and neither. I'll muck about with an idea for as long as it takes (months, usually, and sometimes years) to figure out what I want to do with it, jotting down notes and the occasional line of dialog until I've got what seems to me the perfect opening sentence, one that roots the reader in the situation and gives me the chance to move forward rapidly. "He died." Or "The Bureaucrat fell from the sky." Or "On a hilltop in Arcadia, Darger sat talking with a satyr." Then I keep on playing, thinking, inventing, projecting, until I've figured out how the story is going to end. And that's the point when I can begin writing. I start at the beginning and aim at the end and try to see how fast I can get from one point to the other.
Everything that happens between those two moments is unpremeditated, a voyage of discovery. But since I know where I'm going, when the story slams up against the resolution the ending is going to feel inevitable, even fated. Yet at the same time, because I know it's coming, I've been carefully misdirecting the reader every step of the way so that he or she can't see it coming. You know how when something big happens in your life, you stand dazed and think, "I should have seen it coming? How could I not have known?" Like that.
12. Your later work is filled with, amongst others, socio-economic themes. Do you think SF is particularly well suited to bringing themes such as this to light?
MS: Science fiction is particularly well suited to dealing with ideas of all sorts. It's God's own toolbox! Too many writers get caught up in the quotidian business of trying to make a living and lose sight of this. But the primary virtue of science fiction is this: it is meant to be taken literally. That dinosaur is really a dinosaur. That heavy-gravity planet is more than just a metaphor. They can serve a metaphoric intent, of course, but only after the very hard work of making them real and convincing has been done. Here's an example. "Hindsight," one of my least-popular stories and for that reason a particular favorite of mine, was set in a future in which some unknown event has reversed consciousness. So you wake up in the morning and you can remember everything that's going to happen to you until the instant you die, but you have no idea who this person sleeping alongside you might be. Your spouse? A one-night stand? You have no way of knowing.
If this were a mainstream story, the only possible reading would be that the protagonist was completely mad. But since it was science fiction, I could use the situation as a springboard to examine questions of predetermination and free will and specifically whether it's possible to have free will in a deterministic universe. Which you may personally find intriguing or not, but will have to admit is more interesting than the mainstream interpretation.
13. Which do you enjoy writing more -- the short story, or novel-size works? And how much re-writing are you prepared to do until you finally decide to leave a story as is?
MS: For the writing, the short story, because you can see the end of the project. A novel takes so long that it's only after a matter of years that you can experience the satisfaction of completion. And, oh man, there's nothing like that feeling. Ronald Anthony Cross wrote a story, years ago, where at the very end of the narrative the story's author (invisible before then) pushes away from the writing desk and goes to the window. Clutching the sill with trembling fingers, he stares out blindly over the city and thinks: Christ! What an imagination I've got! I read that and fell over laughing, he'd nailed it so perfectly.
But for the having written, the novel wins hands down. It's a much larger accomplishment, to begin with, and so the satisfaction is correspondingly greater. The duties attendant upon publication take up that much more time and so feel correspondingly more important. And finally, it brings in a lot more attention. An average run-of-the-mill novel, one that will be effectively forgotten a year from now, is going to get a lot more reviews -- and the reviews will be many times longer -- than whatever wins the short-story Hugo this year. Novels get noticed in a way that short fiction simply doesn't.
14. Are there any current trends in SF that you've picked up -- stylistic or theme-wise?
MS: Let's see. You know about the New Space Opera and the New Weird, right? Well, they're just aspects of a much larger phenomenon that cuts across both genres. We're in an extraordinary era of ferment. I was being interviewed in the Ateljee Bar in Helsinki recently, which is where spies liked to rendezvous in the Cold War days, and the editor of Portti science fiction magazine pointed this out to me. There have never been so many writers doing first-rate, exciting work in the genres as there are now. This is bigger than the New Wave, bigger than Cyberpunk, bigger than anything we've seen before.
This applies also to the slipstream. Four of the best anthologies of the last year were McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Trampoline from Kelly Link's Small Beer Press, Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists and Polyphony 2 from Wheatland Press. They contain a mind-boggling amount of first-rate fiction, particularly considering that they're addressed to a market so undeveloped that nobody knows if it really exists or not.
When you combine this with the "Interstitial Arts" movement spearheaded by Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, et al., which attempts to dissolve all boundaries not only between literary genres but between art forms as well, it becomes obvious that something significant is going on here.
Lesser trends would have to include the resurgence of hard SF; the reinvention of space opera, usually by British writers, and related to this the rebirth of Great Britain as a major SF-producing nation; various subcategories of fantasy including whatever it is that Jeff Vandermeer is up to, "weird slipstream" maybe; and an astonishing amount of chest-thumping, self-promotion, clique-building, and rhetorical madness. This despite the fact that the publishing industry is more hidebound and conservative today than it's been in decades.
If I had to sum it up in two sentences, I'd say: we've got an incredible number of talented and ambitious writers ripping up the flooring and kicking out the doors. We should be paying more attention to them.
15. How much of an effect, positive and negative, has the Internet had on the quality of SF and fantasy literature?
MS: So far, not much. This is because, as Samuel Johnson once opined, "No man but a blockhead wrote except for money," and so far the Internet hasn't found very many good ways to bring money to writers. So our best efforts are directed at book and magazine publishers. There are exceptions, of course. Websites with corporate sponsors, like SCI FICTION (which ultimately exists to promote the Sci Fi Channel -- and seems to do a pretty good job of it, too), can afford top-notch writers like Lucius Shepard and Octavia Butler. My own Periodic Table of Science Fiction there brings in a nice bit of supplementary income to help level out the trough between novels. But if I were to rely on online markets for my fiction, I'd have to go out and get a day job. There's just not the money there. Yet.
In a way, this may be a good thing. I find it extremely hard to read long fiction online and I suspect that this may not be entirely me, that it may be that the format militates toward shorter fiction. That was the thinking behind my two weekly series of short-shorts (the other one is The Sleep of Reason at The Infinite Matrix, illos by Goya), to create something that the online browser could bookmark, read quickly, and return to periodically, much like the day's Dilbert cartoon. It works! Both series are popular. But the short-short is a limited form. It can't achieve the heights and depths that War and Peace or The Left Hand of Darkness can. So there's still good reason to cherish words that are specifically printed on paper.
16. What are you reading right now?
MS: I just finished reading Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo and I'm halfway through Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore by Ray Loriga. Sinisalo's book won the Finlandia Prize, Finland's most prestigious literary award. It's about a beautiful but shallow gay man who rescues a sick troll cub and takes it to live in his apartment. It's Sinisalo's conceit that trolls are a natural animal, derived from cats and through the workings of convergent evolution roughly human in appearance. The intrusion of the troll into the man's life both illuminates and changes it. It's a novel that works equally well as SF and as mainstream.
Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore is about a man who sells memory-eroding drugs to people who have good reason to want to forget what they've done. It's told in the first person, set in a future practically indistinguishable from the present, and it's obvious from the start that the protagonist is psychically drowning in the global culture. Riveting stuff, translated from the Spanish with grace and élan.
Also the usual SF magazines, research for novels and various stories, and so on. I am hoping to find the time to read Joanna Russ's history of modern feminism, What Are We Fighting For? The title (not hers) and a strikingly ugly cover send out a not-terribly-subtle message that this book is NOT FOR YOU -- GO AWAY! THIS IS FOR INTELLECTUAL ACADEMIC FEMINIST LESBIAN THEORETICIANS ONLY!!! But the writing is fluid and lucid and crammed with interesting, intriguing, involving ideas. Which is what I went to science fiction to find in the first place -- interesting, intriguing, involving ideas.
17. If you had the option of turning any one of your works into a film, which one would you choose?
MS: I'm going to cheat here and give separate answers for film and anime. I would love to see Hayao Miyazaki make the anime of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. There are a couple of scenes in Spirited Away, where Chihiro runs across collapsing industrial ducting and when she passes through a huge, greasy-windowed kitchen, which could have been lifted straight from my novel. The book has far too much plot for one movie, of course -- he'd have to limit it to the factory section. But wouldn't that be great?
For film, Bones of the Earth. They've got the technology to do the megafauna right now, and I'd love to see dinosaurs portrayed not as monsters but as the fascinating animals they were. That's presupposing the movie-makers didn't turn it into another dino-monster flick, of course.
18. You've won the Nebula, Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards, plus countless others. Are these a constant affirmation that, just maybe, you're doing the right thing -- and doing it right?
MS: I had the extraordinary good luck of having my first two published stories on the Nebula ballot, and many works thereafter, and yet not winning anything for the first twelve years of my career. I've known people who won a major award for their first or second story, and that can really screw you up. Every story after that which doesn't win an award is an affirmation that you peaked early and are sliding downhill. But all those years of being a frequent also-ran and also, in my first decade as a writer, of often serving on the Nebula jury (which is empowered to add one work per category to the ballot, and requires reading everything published in SF during the year) taught me that there is no such thing as a "best" work in any category. Different stories attempt different things; they're not like greyhounds or tomatoes, which can be objectively compared for speed or ripeness. So I can appreciate the awards as being a celebration of the fiction itself, without finding them either sufficient or necessary to the actual business of literature. They're fun, mind you! They are great to win. But they're not what it's all about.
19. Any insightful advice you would like to disperse to would-be SF/Fantasy writers?
MS: Yes. Write what you want to write, rather than what you think you should. Every successful writer you know of did exactly that thing. The people writing what you think of as "trash" don't see their work that way at all. They think of it as being important and necessary and they put their souls into it. That's why, when a serious writer decides to "slum," to write beneath himself, it never works commercially. The stuff cranked out is fake. The insincerity shows. It's not what the readers want.
Also, writing is hard work. For the same effort, you can make a lot more money in advertising. Why bother, if you're not going to write what you love?
20. What would you like your epitaph to read?
1950 -- 98,347
This monument erected by his loving widow, Marianne Porter.
Copyright © 2003 Lynne Jamneck
Lynne Jamneck is planning on waking one morning early to take over the world. Her writing has appeared in Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, Clean Sheets, and City Slab Magazine. Upcoming work will feature in H.P Lovecraft's Magazine Of Horror, and the Anthologies Delicate Friction: Lesbian Erotica (Bullock Publications), Darkways Of The Wizard (Cyber-Pulp) and Raging Horrormones (Lethe Press). Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.