Size / / /
Chasing the Phoenix cover

Darger and Surplus are back. If this means a lot to you, save some time and go fetch Chasing the Phoenix straightaway. If not, read on.

As this is not their first outing, our narrator quickly sketches a view of Darger and Surplus for those who have not seen either Dancing with Bears or the short stories recording earlier adventures. Expectations may be confused when we discover that Darger is dead as the novel opens—but such misfortune is only a minor deterrent for two such resourceful chaps as the dog-man formally called Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux and his best friend, who takes the name Perfect Strategist in this adventure. Our friends' lighthearted tone is maintained throughout, whilst still delivering sufficient light and shade not to become monotonous.

To one of Surplus's profession, the best thing to be in a city was anonymous. Failing that, however, notoriety would do. (p. 20)

This is a high-wire act, but Swanwick performs in perfect comfort. Darger and Surplus are “rogues,” but they are contrasted against the truly wicked and misguided people they meet along the way. We are encouraged to feel superior to those with moral certainty or an excess of ambition; our leading lights are better than those whose morals are either too high or too low.

The story begins deep in the heart of a collection of nations still known as China, where Darger and Surplus soon come to the attention of the Hidden King. They avoid immediate execution through incredible promises and further death threats through outrageous lies. The web of deceit grows ever more elaborate and the variety of retribution threatened upon them more multitudinous. These confidence tricksters have only their own self-confidence to bet on, in the hope of riches and the fear of death. This all unfolds within the court intrigues and upon the battlefields of the Hidden King, who has a grand plan to conquer and unite China, then immolate himself and his new capital—the ancient city of North—in a nuclear fire, the first since the Utopian Age.

In some ways, this is a China of Western myth, but Swanwick is writing in full awareness of the nature of orientalism. He amuses this reader, at least, by naming a series of characters in the most literal fashion: Capable Servant, Vicious Brute, General Staunch Defender; and in the same moment pointing out how names that English speakers think of only as names are no different—

the Demesne of Western Vermont . . . in Chinese the name translated as the Land of the Green Mountains of the West (p. 22)

This mutual incomprehension is played as foolishness on all our parts, both in the epigraphs at the start of each chapter and through the repeated use of story and aphorism by the Perfect Strategist. Sayings which we see as crutches or catchphrases in our own language are used as a sign of mysticism and debt to the past in another's:

“In my country,” Surplus said, “there is a saying: The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Wonderingly, White Squall said, “you Westerners certainly use a lot of adages.”

“It is our way,” Darger said, standing. (p. 169)

Embedded in this is the further joke of how memes from our own time might survive across the centuries. Swanwick establishes that this setting is a somewhat distant future but it could, at first, be mistaken for fantasy, or for a mediaeval era or perhaps for pastiche of Jack Vance's Dying Earth. These elements are present in the work, alongside twenty-first-century considerations of how our world might be viewed from beyond. Our own time has been the utopian era, but some form of singularity seems to have been both the peak and the end of utopia. Miracles from that era have either become mythical or merged into ordinary life. The things lost are usually ones we could understand, whilst the things retained are those of which we have no knowledge. Using this, Swanwick can deliver a picaresque of a post-utopian future:

Chickens foraged in the yards. Wisps of blue smoke rose from the chimneys. A land orca pulled a plow. The scene could hardly have been more bucolic. (p. 126)

Almost, one is past this description before noticing the land orca, which our residents of the time consider no less likely than chickens.

There are other hints at what has been lost from our utopia and what remains, whether it is the suggestion that the ancients had a religious symbol called a satellite dish or the idea that drinking a potion of mathematics will embed the knowledge in your brain. Yet, anything considered to be technology is taboo or viewed with suspicion. Despite this, the Hidden King's army is powered by the research of Chief Archaeological Officer White Squall. She has spent her life in the company of machinery. Her command vehicle is a backhoe, surrounded by such resurrected war machines as crushing wheels, walking bridges, and giant mechanical spiders. White Squall is a true servant to the Hidden King, and so obeys the command to seek and restore a nuclear warhead. The search is concluded remarkably quickly, quite early in the book, which makes the possibility of nuclear destruction a genuine threat.

The foray into a nuclear bunker also provides an opportunity for a cameo from the demons of the Internet. These “mad intelligences and posthuman minds” (p. 114) are not as visible here as they were in Dancing with Bears, but on each occasion that they show up, their malevolence is undoubted. Late in the novel, Darger seeks them out in a beautiful piece of plotting. His apparent purpose is to ask questions about the nature of the world and of the demons themselves. The answers he elicits provide new details for the reader; a satisfying outcome as it explains the nature of the Hidden King and provides context on the demons of the Internet. The next scene provides a completely different gloss on proceedings, as Darger reveals to Surplus the reason he went—to determine whether these mad intelligences have been able to learn the latest trick they are playing. This is different from either the revelations to the reader or the reason supplied to the demon. And yet all this apparent transparency allows the author to further obfuscate what is actually going on—for both the reader and the characters themselves. I would like to pretend I was not fooled as much as the characters, but even so, I can recommend the pleasure of experiencing the author's own confidence tricks played out—and the ending is a delight.

Swanwick builds a pleasurable reading experience at every level. From word choice and sentence shape to plot and character, each reflects and amplifies the other and the whole package is tied up with just enough loose ends to look forward to more in this series.

Duncan Lawie is delighted to return to being opinionated in public after two years' careful silence as a Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His work also appears in Media Culture Reviews.

Duncan Lawie has been reviewing SF for half as long as he has been reading it, although there was a quiet period during two years as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His reviews also appear in the British Science Fiction Association's Vector Magazine.
Current Issue
18 Jan 2021

Splinters, old and new. How else can the skin remember the tree? If it hurts, that is the point.
By: Fatima Taqvi
Podcast read by: Courtney Floyd
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Courtney Floyd presents "Secrets of the Kath' by Fatima Taqvi. The full text of the story is available here.
Soft Shoulder speaking softly / quick-stop-tongued lanky cur dog / lisping languid in jeans
By: Zach Ozma
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Zach Ozma
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Zach Ozma's “Soft Shoulder (Excerpt)” with a reading by the poet.
The way I see it, this story is full of symbolic touchstones, visual elements with layers of meaning that are not always obvious, or even accessible, to the reader.
Wednesday: Bulbbul 
Issue 11 Jan 2021
By: Ryu Ando
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Nikki Caffier Smith
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 4 Jan 2021
By: Maya Beck
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Stephanie Burt
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Stephanie Burt
Issue 21 Dec 2020
By: Octavia Cade
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Meep Matsushima
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Meep Matsushima
Issue 14 Dec 2020
By: ML Kejera
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Brigid Nemeton
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Brigid Nemeton
7 Dec 2020
Strange Horizons is now accepting fiction submissions for the Palestinian Special issue! The issue, edited by Rasha Abdulhadi and Basma Ghalayini will be published at the end of March 2021. We are open for submissions from now until January 31, 2021. Don't wait till the end to send your work!
7 Dec 2020
تقديم الطلبات مفتوح من الان و حتى تاريخ 31 يناير 2021. قدم/ قدمي عملك عاجلا و ليس آجلا!
Issue 7 Dec 2020
By: Toby MacNutt
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Anna Cates
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 1 Dec 2020
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Translated by: Ateri Miyawatl
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Translated by: Adam Coon
By: Vraiux Dorós
Translated by: Toshiya Kamei
By: Luz Rosales
Translated by: Andrea Chapela
By: Libia Brenda
Translated by: Allana C. Noyes
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Podcast read by: Ateri Miyawatl
Podcast: Bromelia (English) 
Podcast: Bromelia (Español) 
Issue 23 Nov 2020
By: Michael Bazzett
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Michael Bazzett
Issue 16 Nov 2020
By: Cat Aquino
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Michael Chang
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Load More
%d bloggers like this: