It’s hard for me to review Michael Swanwick’s latest collection of short stories, Not So Much, Said the Cat (Tachyon, August 2016), without coming across like a total fangoober. That’s partly because, when it comes to Swanwick’s work, I am a total fangoober, and have been for decades. He’s one of my favourite writers and a literary hero of mine, so I’m primed to like a collection of his—I always have. But it’s also because Not So Much, Said the Cat is such a good collection—far better than any book of its kind has any right to be.
Not So Much, Said the Cat includes most of Swanwick’s short fiction production from 2008 onward — the only exceptions I’m aware of are the collaborations with other authors, the miniatures he’s written for his wife’s Dragonstairs Press project, and the Mongolian Wizard stories, which presumably will get their own volume (though the fourth story in the series, “House of Dreams,” is included here). Which is to say that it’s one of those short story collections that are iterative and reasonably all-inclusive: here, these collections say, are the stories that have appeared since the author’s previous collection—in this case, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (Tachyon, 2007).
Collections like these inevitably have stronger stories and weaker stories, the latter more or less serving to pad out the collection. Here’s the thing: there are no weak stories in Not So Much, Said the Cat. They’re all great. Every last one of them. (I checked this assessment with Jennifer, no small Swanwick fan herself, and she agrees with me.) These 17 stories are all of a very high standard, each infused with emotional insight, clear intelligence, meticulous craft, and the cunning and clever mischief that are Swanwickian hallmarks.
The subject matter ranges from the mundane to the metaphysical, and from the fantastic to the hardest of hard science. In stories like “The Man in Grey” and “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” the nature of time and reality are unravelled; in “Passage of Earth” and “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” we encounter thoroughly well-realized aliens; in “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” a daughter travels to the underworld to save her father. The rogues Darger and Surplus make a welcome re-appearance in “Tawny Petticoats”; this time they meet their match while visiting New Orleans (which suffers the usual fate). “The Dala Horse” takes a Swedish folk object and turns it into a post-utopian tale. Russia features twice, in “Pushkin the American,” a sly secret history, and “Libertarian Russia,” a parable that is both timely and timeless. Finally, we have “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” a Gene Wolfe tribute that flipped the details of his classic novella, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” Only a few of these stories appeared online (I have linked to them above); most appeared in either the traditional magazines (six in Asimov’s, two in F&SF) or in original anthologies, so it’s likely there’s more than a few stories you haven’t seen before.
The quality of this collection is mind-boggling and has forced me to recalibrate my expectations: I almost have to go back and take one star off my reviews of other short story collections. With Not So Much, Said the Cat Swanwick is at the top of his game, the height of his powers, the insert-whatever cliché-seems-appropriate-here. It’s all the more striking when you consider that at the same point in Isaac Asimov’s career—36 years after first publication—Asimov published Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (Doubleday, 1975), a collection of feghoots, shaggy dogs and other minor Asimoviana whose prime virtue was that they had not yet been published between boards. But Asimov had largely been phoning it in on the fiction front since the late 1950s. Swanwick has done no such thing: this collection is proof positive of that. Indeed, it is proof that Swanwick, who has spent considerable time talking about the important figures of the science fiction and fantasy field, is one such figure himself—and almost certainly one of our greatest living writers.
If that sounds like fangoobering, so be it.
I received an electronic review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.