Chasing the Phoenix
by Michael Swanwick
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765380906
Date: 11 August 2015 List Price $26.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
One has only to encounter Michael Swanwick at a convention, or read his personal blog (flogging babel), to see that the man loves to tell stories. He is full of pithy anecdotes about friends and famous SF figures, obviously polished for maximum effect. Chasing the Pheonix, the latest Darger and Surplus story, demonstrate this same tale spinning impulse--the exploits of these postmodern con men are SF versions of tall tales. Surplus is a genetically engineered dog, modified to be as intelligent as a man, and to walk and speak. Darger is a partner in crime, prone to depression and with an artistic streak, but no less capable in a caper. They move through a post-singularity world, where malicious AI's almost destroyed the world in ages past, causing people to reject all advanced electronic technology, and rely instead on genetic engineering. The AI's remain alive, trapped in the underground cables of the futuristic internet, but usually unable to influence the real world.
The obvious parallel is with Jack Vance's tales of Cugel the clever, another amoral con man in a futuristic setting that felt like fantasy. However, as amusing as Cugel was, he was also thoroughly unpleasant--perfectly willing to murder and steal when it was to his advantage beneath his veneer of pleasant civility. Darger and Surplus, on the other hand, despite being thieves at heart, are genuinely likeable, with a genuine code of honor, albeit one that allows them to indulge in elaborate schemes to part the rich from their money.
This latest adventure for Darger and Surplus has them arrive in China, which has become divided into warring states. Darger is, unfortunately, dead, and Surplus's first order of business is to correct this unfortunate state of affairs. After that, the two of them come up with a plot to defraud the hidden king, a warlike monarch of a small state. However, they are soon in over their heads, and inadvertently find themselves helping the hidden king in his effort to reunite China, while also being drawn into the machinations and romances of the kings generals (or CEO's, as the are called).
Darger and Surplus are as entertaining as ever. They do not undergo any particular character development, but that is part of the their charm. Their presence inevitably leads to huge changes everywhere they go, upending lives and kingdoms, but they themselves are unchanged, moving along to the next caper and blithely sure that this time they will find the wealth they seek.
The fun in these novels lies in seeing the pair outsmart everyone they come across. Indeed, they often end up outsmarting themselves, and being ensnared in their own clever plots. The novel is fast moving, clever, and a lot of fun. It stands perfectly well on its own, but is especially welcome to those who have followed the previous exploits of Darger and Surplus and want to find out what happens to them next. I am already eagerly awaiting their next adventure.