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M I C H A E L    S W A N W I C K :
Of All Plausible Worlds

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, March 1998)
Michael Swanwick
    

Michael Swanwick's first novel, In the Drift (1985), was followed by Vacuum Flowers (1988), the novella Griffin's Egg (1990), a fantasy-flavored SF novel Stations of the Tide (1991), which won a Nebula Award, and an SF-flavored fantasy novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1994). His short fiction includes ''The Edge of the World'', which won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short story of 1989, and ''Radio Waves'', which won a 1996 World Fantasy Award. His latest books are the sharply-satiric novel Jack Faust and the short fiction collection A Geography of Unknown Lands (both 1997).

''We had this strange phenomenon, along with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall coming down, almost simultaneously this consensus reality we've been building very carefully in science fiction collapsed too. If you look around, you see a lot of people who normally would be writing science fiction not writing science fiction. You see a lot of people taking a sidewards step into alternative history. And it's because all of that great cushion of ideation and creation that we got from our SF ancestors, dating all the way back to the 1930s, has been used up. And a lot of it invalidated.
       ''The future doesn't look the way it was going to look back in the 1960s. Very different. It's hard to get a really clear idea what the space program is going to be like, but we know it's not going to be like the way we had pictured it, this triumphant growth into space, more and more people into space. A lot of SF's world-building of the future was borrowed from people like Heinlein, Murray Leinster, Poul Anderson, hundreds of them, in a very free and generous and allowed borrowing. But now it looks like it is not going to be like that, we're back to where they were when they were making this stuff up, where the future wasn't at all obvious or easy to see. They invented a good, hard, convincing future. It's our job to do it again, and it's a tough job.''

''Having written Stations of the Tide, a fantasy-flavored science fiction novel, followed by The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a science fiction-flavored fantasy novel, I was forced to think about what the difference was. I concluded that a science fiction novel occurs in a universe which is ultimately knowable. Human beings don't have the information and may not have a large enough intellect to understand the basic nature of reality, but it is knowable. In a fantasy novel, at the very heart, it is unknowable. There's mystery at the heart, and that mystery is essentially religious. In Stations of the Tide, they go through these mysterious events, continually coming up with explanation on explanation of how things work. In The Iron Dragon's Daughter, every time Jane comes up with a new explanation, it totally contradicts all the other explanations that came before! Also, they're all obviously true, and the essential nature of the universe is ultimately, desperately proved to be unknowable.''

''My son reads tons of fantasy, and I'm not sure he reads any fantasy books that come in multiples of less than six! It's a separate genre of fantasy with its own set of rules and expectations, and I think it is in a kind of dialog with itself. It's not one that I'm engaged in, because you have to be young and read hundreds of these things to get a good solid background. To listen to him, and other 'DragonLance' fans, talking about which of the trilogies are the good ones.... I was listening to him talk to a young clerk in a bookstore, and she was saying, 'Oh, this trilogy was great....' I'm standing there uncomprehending. I said to myself, 'My god, this must have been how it was for my father when I was talking about science fiction!'''

''I came up with the idea for Jack Faust when I was in high school, 17 years old. I read Kit Marlowe's tragedy, Doctor Faustus. It's wonderful, thunderous language, magnificent work. The only problem from my point of view is that Faust sells his soul for knowledge, and what he gets is a handful of pranks, etc. I wanted to see a Faust that sold his soul for knowledge, and it was the knowledge that damned him. Everybody knows that Faust's damnation is by science, and that's the story I wanted to tell.
       ''Every few years, I would stop and examine myself to see if I was ready to start this book, and I always decided I was not. But a couple of years ago, with my heart in my hands, I started. It's about information. It's a novel about the last 500 years of our culture, and the raft of technological change that's taken place without adequate reflection, I think. The advantage of the Faust legend is that it gives you a tool, that you can actually look at something that's too large to see or talk about or deal with: our entire culture, our entire civilization. What are the implications of everything that's happened in the past 500 years?''

''Mephistopheles is a construct of an alien race. That whole alien race, and their double universe, is stolen from Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves. When I was writing the book, I did not know whether it was science fiction or fantasy at first, and it amused me, the thought that this fantasy novel was heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov. Of course, it turned out to be a science fiction novel. I gave a science fiction rationale for Mephistopheles, rather than having it be a supernatural creature, because if there is a devil, it's also inside the god, and I wanted the whole novel to occur in a godless universe, so the very worst could happen to everybody, and there was no possibility of salvation.''

''I'm working on a novel. I can't really say much about it, except that it will have a lot of the feel of Jack Faust in the relationship of people. I felt happier with the way Jack Faust came out than with any of my previous novels. The next one is going to feel a lot like that, but it's going to have a happy ending, believe it or not. This is not only going to be a happy ending, but I think it will be happy ending by other peoples' standards, as opposed to just my own.''

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.