Monday, October 08, 2012

Review: Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick

Prior to reading Dancing With Bears (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) I had only read one novel by MichaelSwanwickThe Dragons of Babel (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon, my review). At that time I raved about how much fun the book was, how subversive it was and simply how well it was written. Dancing With Bears is no different in that respect, though the subject matter is, which serves to highlight the versatility of Swanwick and as a rebuke of my neglecting to read more Swanwick until now.
Dancing With Bears is set in a future that is described as ‘post-utopian’ where a pair of classic highwaymen, Darger and Surplus, journey to Moscow. The world is a striking mix of future technology and genetic engineering and the regression to pre-industrial times in the aftermath of a great war with artificial intelligence (ala Terminator). A few remaining machines of the internet hive-mind have designs on a new war with Moscow as their first target while Darger and Surplus simply set out to make a lot of money. Of course chaos ensues (as it always seems to in the wake of Darger and Surplus) in the wonderfully competent and satiric style that Swanwick pulls off so well.
The first and most obvious subversion that Swanwick employs is the concept of a post-utopian world. Science fiction is awash in post-apocalyptic ideas, so the slight tweak to make it post-utopian is clever, though it could easily fall flat in the hands of a lesser writer. The difference between post-apocalyptic and post-utopian is one of perspective more than anything – the focus is not on the apocalyptic, but on the near-utopia that precedes it. That in itself is not enough, for Swanwick completes the subversion by setting this story in Russia, where the culture and history combine to a prevailing attitude that questions whether or not Russia ever actually experienced the utopia of their post-utopian world.
The post-utopian Moscow that Swanwick creates is a curious mixture of regency style class structure, crazy genetic engineering, and heavy-handed secret police with a lot of sex, a drug that makes everyone have even more sex, an underground world of outcasts, and the plotting of a resurgent technological enemy. Throw in a few genetically engineered virginal concubines gifted to the Duke of Muscovy, a Byzantium spy and the designs of Darger and Surplus and the term boiling point becomes outright explosive.
While I’ve continually thrown around the term post-utopian in a way that would suggest that is the main point of the book, its focus. Which is not really correct – the book really does rally around the classic highwaymen, Darger and Surplus (one is an English gentleman and the other a genetically engineered dog-man from the Vermont). The rogue-ish adventures as these accomplished con-men confidently undermine the entire Russian aristocracy in attempt to profit could almost be considered a fun take on sword and sorcery if Dancing With Bears wasn’t so obviously pointed at post-apocalyptic science fiction. It’s simply a whole lot of fun as Swanwick continuously fuels the satirical funeral byre with an underlying wry humor.
Everything I’ve written above only hints at this uproariously weird novel of the future with designs on the past and present. Nothing is immune to satiric wit of Swanwick and his enigmatic duo of confidence men, one whom is literally a dog. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll cybernetic wolves in human clothing combine in a drug-fueled rave of political revolution under the iconic sway of a resurrected Lenin and religious fervor as a couple of con-men make off with the gold – that’s one hell of a description for a book. This is not a novel for everyone, but it certainly was a novel for me. And once again I’m left feeling that I really must read more Swanwick.

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