Not So Much, Said the Cat
by Michael Swanwick
Review by Sam Lubell
Tachyon Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616962289
Date: 09 August 2016 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Michael Swanwick is one of the best short story writers in the science fiction/fantasy field. He will be a guest of honor at this month's Worldcon, MidAmeriCon in Kansas City. While he jokes that he has lost more major awards than any other science fiction writer, his display cabinet holds five Hugo awards, a Nebula, and a World Fantasy Award. Swanwick writes clear, elegant prose that is a joy to read, and excels at creating lifelike characters. Each story is a complete work of art.
Not So Much Said the Cat is a follow-up to his 2007 collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow. It includes 17 short stories from magazines and anthologies published since 2007, including one story from his Danger and Surplus series. The book’s introduction provides a fascinating look at the early days of his career and how he learned to write stories.
Many of his stories are about how the world really is different from what we think. "The Man in Grey" is a thought-provoking meditation on free will as a would-be suicide discovers her whole life is scripted and arranged with stagehands building sets as needed for the 50,000 real people in the world. In "The Dala Horse" a young girl on her way to her grandmother's with the aid of a sentient knapsack and map encounters a troll who is trying to stay reformed. This story starts as a fantasy, but has more going on than the reader expects. "The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree" has a super-genius who has seemingly failed to accomplish anything of note meet a practical experimenter who could construct ways to prove her theories about time not really existing. It winds up as an unexpected love story.
"Goblin Lake" considers the nature of stories and realities as Jack, thrown into the lake of the Mummelsee, discovers that he and everyone he knows are fictional character. "Libertarian Russia" exposes the lie behind the fantasy libertarians claim to want. "Pushkin the American" is a romance that reimagines the Russian writer as an American with no knowledge of the language. The final story, "The House of Dreams" has a spy question what is reality when he is captured by an enemy who uses illusionary dreams to interrogate him.
Other stories deal with moral choices. In "The Scarecrow's Boy" a robotic scarecrow has to choose between saving a little boy's life or obeying his degenerate master. "Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown" has an innocent Chinese teenage girl try to save her father from the devil by going to hell herself. The devil challenges her to maintain her virginity for a full year, while requiring her to date everyone who asks. "3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar" is about how people stranded in the dinosaur age cope with their imminent death. In "For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I'll Not Be Back Again" a man about to leave Earth to work for the Outsiders who had conquered humanity falls in love with an Irish singer who wants to use him to carry a bomb into the starport. "Steadfast Castle" is a mystery story about love and loyalty that begins with a policeman interviewing a house with a built-in AI. In "An Empty House with Many Doors" a man mourning his dead wife steps into an alternate reality in which she is still alive and married to an alternate version of himself.
"Passage of Earth" has a simple county coroner conduct an autopsy on an alien corpse, from the only other known intelligent species. But the story is as much about the main character's past as it is what happens to him in the autopsy. "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" is one of my favorites in the book as it combines debates on knowledge, economics, and history. A human diplomat is in an alien city when attackers destroy it. With the aid of his spacesuit with an AI programmed with the voice of his dead lover, Quivera helps an alien named Uncle Vanya, who speaks in logic bursts, save what he claims is his city's library. "Tawny Petticoats" features Swanwick's series characters Surplus and Dagger as they try yet again to profit from a con. "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin" has two rich girls raised to marry well to add to the family's prestige in a world where the human colonists may have been replaced by aborigines. Then one falls in love with another woman, and everything collapses.
Perhaps the best reason to read short stories is the way they give a skilled writer many different canvases to display his talents. Not So Much Said the Cat tackles themes of love, identity, morals, and reality in varying settings and plots. Still, Swanwick's style shines through in all of these and each story will make the reader think.