One of the most respected fantasy and science fiction writers of his generation, Michael Swanwick is a master at weaving science fiction into present-day scenarios and vice versa. He ensures his inventions are believable, his characters “behave in a way that’s recognizably human,” and the universes he creates serve a unique purpose to his stories.
Swanwick’s work has won the Nebula, Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. He is the author of nine novels, including The Dragons of Babel, Bones of the Earth, Jack Faust, Vacuum Flowers, and Stations of the Tide, and six collections including, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, and The Best of Michael Swanwick. He’s published over a hundred short stories in magazines such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog; has been translated into a dozen languages; and appears frequently in best-of-the-year anthologies.
You mix the past with the present and the future to create worlds that seem familiar yet are so different than what readers have experienced. What kind of latitude does this give you as a writer, and how does it help you achieve your story objectives?
The freedom is limitless. I think of science fiction and fantasy as being not so much genres as a set of tools. With those tools, you can undo past actions, read minds, fly on griffin-back, sail worlds through the galaxies like so many galleons. I wrote a story called “Foresight,” in which consciousness had been reversed in time, so that you’d know everything that was going to happen to you up until the instant you die . . . but not what you did a second ago, or who that person you woke up beside this morning might be. If you tried that in a non-genre story, the reader could only assume that either the protagonist was mad or else the author was just goofing around. But since it was science fiction, I was able to seriously explore questions of whether it’s possible to have free will in a predetermined universe, and what love might actually mean under such conditions. That’s an extraordinary privilege.
But it’s also an extraordinary responsibility. When God gives you a set of burglar tools, you’re not expected to use them to putter about making repairs around the house. It’s your job to go out and ransack the secrets of the human soul.
When weaving science fiction into the historical past or real-life present day, what things must you keep in mind to make these scenarios seem plausible?
You have to be careful not to keep piling invention upon invention to the detriment of the story. There must be consequences and those consequences must be in keeping both with the universe as you understand it to be and with the universe as you’ve altered it for the story. The characters must behave in a way that’s recognizably human. And you have to be sure that the payoff justifies the extraordinary liberties you’ve taken to get there. If you set a story on a planet-sized grasshopper and populate it with wizards and immortals and all it leads to is a quiet moment in which the protagonist reflects that life is good, then the reader is going to feel cheated. “I believed in all that stuff for this?” That same resolution could be achieved with two estranged friends meeting unexpectedly in a 7-Eleven.
You also have to do your homework. If you’re writing about rocket travel to one of the moons of Jupiter, you must know how long that’s going to take and how much shielding you need to protect yourself from the ambient radiation there. If your hero is a knight, you must know about weapons, armor, horses, tactics. But, having done your homework, you should keep your exposition to an absolute minimum. The reader trusts you the writer, and will continue to do so as long as that trust is not violated.
Here’s an example. An elephant cannot get all four feet off the ground at the same time. When writing about elephants, you must know this. It’s not necessary to have one of your characters say, “As you know, Fred, an elephant cannot . . .” But if you have your elephant effortlessly leap over a ravine to escape a pack of pursuing wolves, you’ll lose every knowledgeable elephant-fancier in your audience. And there are always more of them than you’d expect.
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