Reviews and analysis - Moon Dogs

Review by Nick Gevers
(This review first appeared in Interzone, 11/2000)

Moon Dogs
NESFA Press (USA), 2000

2000 looks to be a good year for SF collections, and Michael Swanwick's Moon Dogs is propitious indeed. It's a large, handsomely produced volume, its cover featuring Rick Berry's enigmatic "Iron Fawn", and its contents page listing three novellas, a novelette, three short stories, a short play, and sundry provocatively titled articles and speeches.

Moon Dogs illustration, 84kB

NESFA Press issued this book to mark Michael Swanwick's appearance at Boskone 2000 as Guest of Honour, and it honours him more than adequately.

But peculiarly, this is not the only Swanwick collection due out this year, and not the most important. By Swanwick’s own account, he was able to boast at Boskone that four of his collections were appearing in 2000, which occasioned the joke that his murder at the convention would make all authors present suspects, their motive simple jealousy. Moon Dogs competes with Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary (Dragon Press), a chapbook of very short stories, Tales Of Old Earth (Frog, forthcoming), a definitive selection from Swanwick’s stories of the last decade, and Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures (Tachyon, forthcoming), which assembles much short short fiction. That Moon Dogs is in a real sense a clean-up collection of work that failed to fit in elsewhere, and yet is of such a high standard anyway, is a tribute to Swanwick’s consistently great skill at shorter lengths, the intelligent sardonic glitter that is his narrative trademark, the true Swanwick sparkle.

But he had help. Five of the stories in Moon Dogs are collaborations with other authors, and in at least four of these cases it was the other who conceived the tale. When Avram Davidson died in 1993, he left various incomplete manuscripts; Swanwick has rounded off two. "Mickelrede" is a novel that Davidson outlined but abandoned, a strange confection about a technologically regressive parallel world whose rulers, besotted with gladiatorial sports, are threatened by Machiavellian Neanderthals periodically in possession of a giant holy slide-rule. Swanwick respectfully and stylishly fills in gaps and adds his comments. "Vergil Magus: King Without Country" is an episode in the career of a great mediaeval wizard Davidson unfortunately portrayed in only two completed novels; this fragment is narrated in Davidson’s best courtly-farcical manner, and Swanwick provides it with an appropriately ironic conclusion.

"Ancestral Voices" and "The City of God" are novellas commenced early in his career by Gardner Dozois, one of the best SF short story writers of the Seventies, in characteristic manner, with floods of emotional prose, but dropped for want of satisfactory plot direction. Swanwick’s role in the alien-predator tale "Ancestral Voices" is subordinate, as Dozois’ moody colours prevail; but "The City of God" is a potent demonstration of the virtues of literary collaboration, as Dozois’ portrayal of a working man’s rebellion against the grinding oppression of his far-future society (Hell) acquires an elegant counterpoint in Swanwick’s surreal evocation of a Man-made Heaven. And "Ships", co-written with Jack Dann, is one of the most breathtakingly savage stories in the recent Fantasy canon, a delineation with apocalyptic brimstone relish of the elevation of a couple’s marital quarrels to the stage of Celestial warfare.

The original pieces in Moon Dogs are no less impressive. The title story is a short parable of how, in a future devastated by diseases rampant after human overuse of antibiotics, the old medical errors find brutal expression in the psychotic behaviour of a reclusive woman. It is complemented by another Dreadful Warning, the play "The Dead" (which has also appeared as a short story); here, capitalist exploitation of labour, including that of the literally deceased, becomes, even more fully than in Ian McDonald’s Necroville (1994), a measure of how dead people can become to each other, and to themselves. "Griffin’s Egg", a novella originally published as a short book in 1991, is also a story of intense didactic forcefulness: it sums up just how inadequate present human standards of co-operation and understanding are in the face of existing requirements, let alone the demands of transforming novelty. A claustrophobic battle for survival in an industrial Moon colony, one skirmish in a general war raging on Earth, is enough to suggest to those surviving that they must evolve into something better, and they set about this. It is either transcendence, or the general death evoked in the other tales.

Swanwick’s non-fiction is amply on display in Moon Dogs. There are his short exercises in autobiography; his tribute to Avram Davidson and a "Hagiography of Saint Dozois"; elegant reflections on the state of SF in the 1990s; a paradoxical take on how life can imitate fiction. But most notable are the twin essays on SF and Fantasy previously published in Asimov’s and in the Tachyon chapbook The Postmodern Archipelago. "A User’s Guide to the Postmoderns" is a devastatingly accurate and comic account of the "Cyberpunk-Humanist Wars" of the early to mid-80s, telling of vitriolic pamphlet propaganda, personality clashes, high literary aspiration and eccentricity, and ultimate truce. "In The Tradition" is a milder but still controversial attempt to isolate exactly what can fairly be termed "Hard Fantasy"; that it’s not altogether successful doesn’t detract from the joy of reading it. In all these effusions, Swanwick is a sage but sardonic observer, writing with economy and great style.

Moon Dogs is a generous sampler of the work of one of contemporary SF’s greatest short story writers. It can’t be too highly recommended.

(Moon Dogs can be ordered from NESFA Press, PO Box 809, Framingham, MA 01701, USA for $25 plus $4 overseas postage; alternatively, visit

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