The master of short science-fiction follows up his acclaimed collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow with feline grace, precision, and total impertinence. Michael Swanwick takes us on a whirlwind journey across the globe and across time and space, where magic and science exist in possibilities that are not of this world. These tales are intimate in their telling, galactic in their scope, and delightfully sesquipedalian in their verbiage.
Join the caravan through Swanwick's worlds and into the playground of his mind. Discover a calculus problem that rocks the ages and robots who both nurture and kill. Meet a magical horse who protects the innocent, a confused but semi-repentant troll, a savvy teenager who takes on the Devil, and time travelers from the Mesozoic who party till the end of time...
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About the Author
Michael Swanwick is one of the most acclaimed science-fiction and fantasy short-story writers of his generation, having received an unprecedented five consecutive Hugo Awards. He has also the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon and World Fantasy awards. Swanwick’s novels include The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a New York Times Notable Book, and the Nebula Awardwinning Stations of the Tide. His short fiction has appeared in many venues, including OMNI, Penthouse, Amazing, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New Dimensions, and Full Spectrum, and his work has been translated into more than ten languages. Swanwick is currently at work on a third novel set in Industrialized Faerie.
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"Not So Much", Said the Cat
By Michael Swanwick, Jill Roberts
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2016 Michael Swanwick
All rights reserved.
The Man in Grey
There's a rustling in the wings. Let the story begin.
I was standing outside watching when sixteen-year-old Martha Geissler, pregnant, loveless, and unwed, stepped into the path of a Canadian National freight train traveling at the rate of forty-five miles per hour. The engineer saw her and simultaneously applied the brakes and hit the air horn. But since the train consisted of two 4,300-horsepower SD70M-2 locomotives hauling seventy-six loaded cars and seventy-three empty ones and weighed an aggregate 11,700 tons, it was a given that it wouldn't stop in time. All that the engineer could hope for was that the crazy woman on the tracks would come to her senses.
Maybe she would. Maybe she wouldn't. The forces that brought Martha here were absolutely predictable. What she would do in the actual event was not. One way or another, it was an instant of perfect, even miraculous, free will.
Martha stared at the oncoming train with neither fear nor exaltation, but with great clarity of mind. She thought things that were hers alone to know, came to a decision, and then stepped deliberately backwards from the track.
There was a collective sigh of relief from the shadows. Never let it be said that those of us who have no lives of our own don't care.
Then she slipped.
It shouldn't have happened. It couldn't have happened. But it did. The script said that if she stepped backwards, away from the oncoming locomotive, the ground behind her would be flat and solid. Given the choice she had made, Martha was supposed to stand, half stunned, as the train slammed past inches from her face. She would be given the gift of a moment of absolute calm in which she would realize things that might well help her to understand exactly who she was now and who she might turn out to be years in the future.
But a stagehand had somehow, inexplicably, left behind a chilled bottle of a brand of cola not even available on Martha's ostensible continent, when he was setting up the scene. It rolled under Martha's foot. She lost her balance.
With a little shriek, she fell forward, into the path of the train.
With that, I stepped out of the grey, grabbed her arm, and hauled her back.
Still wailing, the train rushed by and the engineer — enormously relieved and himself beginning to change as a result of the incident — released the brake and carefully accelerated out of the long bend and into somebody else's area of responsibility.
Martha clutched me as tightly as if she were drowning. Slowly I pried her loose. She stared into my face, white with shock. "I ..." she said. "You...."
"It's a goddamned lucky thing I was passing by, young lady," I said gruffly. "You oughtta be more careful." I turned to leave.
Martha looked up and down the tracks. We were at the outskirts of town, where the land was flat and empty. The nearest building was a warehouse a full city block away. There was nowhere I could possibly have come from. She could see that at a glance.
Inwardly I cursed.
"Who are you?" she said, hurrying after me. Then, "What are you?"
"Nobody. I just happened to see you." I was almost running now, with Martha plucking at my coat sleeve and trotting to keep up. "Listen, Sis, I don't want to be rude, but I've got things to do, okay? I got places to be. I can't —" I was sweating. I belonged in the grey, not out on stage with the talent. I wasn't used to extemporaneous speech. All this improv was beyond me.
I broke into an out-and-out run. Coat flying, I made for the warehouse. If I could only get out of sight for a second — assuming there was some local action scheduled for the other side of the building before this scenario ended and that the stage was properly set — I could slip back into the grey without Martha seeing it. She'd know that something strange had happened, but what could she do about it? Who could she complain to? Who would listen to her if she did?
I reached the warehouse and flew around the corner.
And into the streets of Hong Kong.
The stagehands had, of course, only put up as much stage dressing as was needed for the scenario. It was just my bad luck that we were back-to-back with an Asian set. Behind the warehouse facade it was all skyscrapers and Chinese-language advertising. Plus, it was night and it had just rained, so the streets were smudged black mirrors reflecting streetlights and neon. I said a bad word.
Martha plowed into my back. She rebounded, almost fell, and caught herself. Then, horn blaring, a taxicab almost ran us down. She clutched my arm so hard it hurt. "What — what is this?" she asked, eyes wide with existential terror.
"There are a few things you should know." I gently turned her back toward the city she had grown up in. "There's a diner not far from here. Why don't I buy you a cup of coffee and we can talk?"
In the diner, I tried to explain. "The world is maybe not the way you picture it to be," I said. "In its mechanics, anyway. We don't have the resources to maintain every possible setup twenty-four hours a day. Also, there aren't as many real people in it — folks you might actually meet, as opposed to those you see at a distance or hear about on TV — as you were led to believe. Maybe forty-five or fifty thousand all told. But other than that, everything's just like you've always thought it was. Go back to your life and you'll be fine."
Martha clutched her coffee cup as if it were all that was keeping her from falling off the face of the earth. But she looked at me steadily. Her eyes were clear and focused. "So this is all — what? — a play, you're telling me? I'm nothing but a puppet and you're the guy who pulls my strings? You're in charge of things and I'm the entertainment?"
"No, no, no. Your life is your own. You have absolute free will. I'm just here to make sure that when you step out of the shower, the bath mat is always there for you."
"You've seen me naked?"
I sighed. "Martha, either I or somebody like me has been with you for every waking or sleeping moment of your life. Every time your mother changed your diapers or you squeezed a zit in the mirror or you hid under the blankets with a flashlight and a romance manga after you were supposed to be asleep, there were people there, working hard to ensure that the world behaved in a comprehensible and consistent fashion for you."
"So what are you? You operate a camera, right? Or maybe you are the camera. Like you're a robot, or you've got cameras implanted in your eyes." She was still stuck on the entertainment metaphor. It had been a mistake telling her that the whole thing had been caused by a careless stagehand.
"I am not a camera. I'm just the man who stands in grey, making things happen." I did not tell her that all the necessary misery and suffering in the world is caused by people like me. Not because I'm ashamed of what I do — I make no apologies; it's important work — but because Martha wasn't ready to hear, much less understand, it. "What you've discovered is analogous to somebody in the Middle Ages learning that the world is not made up of fire, water, air, and earth, but rather by unimaginably small bundles of quarks underlain by strata of quantum uncertainty. It might feel shocking to you at first. But the world's the same as it's always been. It's only your understanding of it that's changed."
Martha looked at me with huge, wounded eyes. "But ... why?"
"I honestly don't know," I said. "If you forced me to speculate, I'd say that there are two possibilities. One is that Somebody decided that things should be like this. The other is that it's simply the way things are. But which is true is anybody's guess."
That's when Martha began to cry.
So I got up and walked around the table and put my arms about her. She was still only a child, after all.
When Martha calmed down, I took her back to her mother's place in the Northern Liberties. It was a long trek — she'd been wandering about blindly ever since the pregnancy test turned blue — and so I ordered up a taxi. Martha flinched a little when it appeared before her, right out of thin air. But she got in and I gave the cabbie her address. The cabbie wasn't real, of course. But he was good work. You'd have to talk to him for an hour to realize he was only a prop.
As we rode, Martha kept trying to work things through. She was like a kid picking at a scab. "So you do all the work, I get that. What's in it for you?"
I shrugged. "A transient taste of being, every now and again." I looked out the window at the passing city. Even knowing that it was all metaphysical canvas and paint, it looked convincing. "This is pretty nice. I like it. Mostly, though, it's just my job. I'm not like you — I don't have any say over what I do and don't do."
"You think any of this is my choice?"
"More of it than you'd suspect. Okay, yes, you dropped out of school, you don't have a job, and you're pregnant by a boy you don't particularly like, and that limits your options. You're still living with your mother and the two of you fight constantly. It's been years since you've seen your father and sometimes you wonder if he's still alive. You have health issues. None of that is under your control. But your response to it is. That's an extraordinary privilege and it's one I don't have. Given the current situation, I could no more get out of this cab and walk away from you than you could flap your arms and fly to the Moon.
"You, however, have the freedom to think anything, say anything, do anything. Your every instant is unpredictable. Right here, right now, it may be that what I'm saying will reach you and you'll smile and ask how you can get back on script. Maybe you'll scream and call me names. Maybe you'll retreat into silence. Maybe you'll slap me. Anything could happen."
She slapped me.
I looked at her. "What did that prove?"
"It made me feel better," she lied. Martha crossed her arms and pushed herself back into the cushions, making herself as small as she could. Fleetingly, I thought she was going to keep retreating, deeper and deeper into herself, until nothing showed on the outside but dull, lifeless eyes. She could decide to do that. It was her right.
But then the cab pulled up before a nondescript row house on Leithgow Street and she got out.
"Act like you've gotten a big tip," I told the cabbie.
"Hey, thanks, buddy!" he said, and drove off.
Martha was unlocking the door. "Mom's visiting her sister in Baltimore for a couple days. We have the house to ourselves."
She went straight to the kitchen and got out a bottle of her mother's vodka from the freezer.
"It's a little early for that, isn't it?" I said.
"Then make it later."
"As you will." I signaled the gaffer and the sun slid down the sky. The world outside the window grew dark. I didn't bother ordering up stars. "Is that late enough?"
"What the fuck do I care?" Martha sat down at the kitchen table and I followed suit. She filled two tumblers, thrust one in my hands. "Drink."
I did, though not being talent, the alcohol had no effect on me.
After a while, she said, "Which of my friends are real and which aren't?"
"They're all real, Martha. Tomika, Jeanne, Siouxie, Ben, your teachers, your parents, your cousins, the boy you thought was cute but too immature to go out with — everyone you have an emotional relationship with, positive or negative, is as real as you are. Anything else would be cheating."
"How about Kevin?" Her boyfriend, of course.
"Shit." Martha stared down into her glass, swirling the vodka around and around, creating a miniature whirlpool. "What about rappers and movie stars?"
"That's a different story. Your feelings toward them aren't terribly complex; nor are they reciprocated. Real people aren't needed to fill the roles."
"Thought so." She drank deeply.
If she kept on in this vein, sooner or later she was going to ask about her father. In which case, I would have to tell her that Carl Geissler was in Graterford, where prison life was teaching him things about his essential nature that would take him decades to assimilate. Then that her mother clandestinely visited him there every month and, for reasons she only imperfectly understood, kept this fact to herself. So I touched Martha's glass and said, "Do you really think this is a wise course of action?"
"What do people normally do in this situation?" she asked sarcastically.
"Martha, listen to me. You have all your life ahead of you and, depending on what choices you make, it can be a very good life indeed. I know. I've seen young women in your situation before, more times than you can imagine. Let me take you back to where you were before we met and start your life up where it left off."
Her expression was stiff and unreadable. "You can do that, huh? Rewind the movie and then start it up again?"
"That's an inexact metaphor," I said. "With your cooperation, we can re-create the scenario. You'll enter it, play your part, and then go back to your life. What happens then will be entirely up to you. No interference from me or anybody like me, I swear. But you have to agree to it. We can't do a thing without your permission."
As I spoke, Martha's face grew more and more expressionless. Her eyes were hard and unblinking. Which suggested that the one thing I feared most — that she would go catatonic, burying that beautiful spark of life deeper and deeper under soft cottony layers of silence and inertia — was a very real possibility. "Please," I said. "Say something."
To my surprise, Martha said, "What does reality look like?"
"I'm not sure I understand you. This is reality. All around you."
"It's a fucking set! Show me what's behind it, or underneath it, or however the hell you want to put it. Show me what remains when the set is gone."
"I honestly don't advise that. It would only upset you."
Reluctantly, I pushed back the chair. There was nothing scheduled anywhere behind the house for hours. I went to the back door. I opened it —
— revealing the roiling, churning emptiness that underlies the world we constantly make and unmake in the service of our duty. The colorless, formless negation of negatives that is Nothing and Nowhere and Nowhen. The calm horror of nonbeing. The grey.
I stood looking into it, waiting for Martha to make a noise, to cry out in fear, to beg me to make it go away. But though I waited for the longest time, she did not.
Fearing the worst, I turned back to her.
"All right," Martha said. "Rewind me."
So I took Martha Geissler back to where it had all begun. The sun and clouds were carefully placed exactly where they'd been, and the stagehands brought out the locomotives and hooked them up to the correct number of freight cars. Because the original engineer was talent, we put in a prop in his place The script didn't call for the two of them to ever meet, so there wouldn't be any continuity problems.
"Here's your mark," I told Martha for the umpteenth time. "When the train passes that telephone pole over there —"
"I step into its path," she said. "Then I slowly count to ten and step backwards off the track. This time there won't be a soda bottle underfoot. How many times have we gone over this? I know my lines."
"Thank you," I said, and stepped into the grey to wait and watch.
The train came rumbling forward, only moderately fast but with tremendous momentum. Closer it came, and closer, and when it reached the telephone pole I'd chosen as a marker, Martha did not step into its path. Instead, she stood motionless by the side of the track.
The prop engineer hit the air horn just as the real one had, despite the fact that the track before him was empty. Still, Martha did nothing.
Then, at the very last possible instant, she stepped in front of the train.
There was a universal gasp from the shadows, the sound of my many brothers and sisters caught completely by surprise. Followed by a moment of perfect silence. Then by rolling thunderheads of applause.
It was an astonishing thing for Martha to do — and she'd done it calmly, without giving me the least sign of what was to come. But I didn't join in the applause.
Excerpted from "Not So Much", Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick, Jill Roberts. Copyright © 2016 Michael Swanwick. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Michael Swanwick,
The Man in Grey,
The Dala Horse,
The Scarecrow's Boy,
Passage of Earth,
3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar,
Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown,
The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree,
From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled ...,
For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I'll Not Be Back Again,
Pushkin the American,
An Empty House with Many Doors,
The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin,
The House of Dreams,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I would like to thank Tachyon Publications & NetGalley for a copy of this e-ARC to review. Though I received this ebook for free, that has no impact upon the honesty of my review. Goodreads Teaser: "The master of short science-fiction follows up his acclaimed collection "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" with feline grace, precision, and total impertinence. Michael Swanwick takes us on a whirlwind journey across the globe and across time and space, where magic and science exist in possibilities that are not of this world. These tales are intimate in their telling, galactic in their scope, and delightfully sesquipedalian in their verbiage. Join the caravan through Swanwick's worlds and into the playground of his mind. Discover a calculus problem that rocks the ages and robots who both nurture and kill. Meet a magical horse who protects the innocent, a confused but semi-repentant troll, a savvy teenager who takes on the Devil, and time travelers from the Mesozoic who party till the end of time..." Truly an exquisite collection of short tales! Swanwick remains the undisputed master of this form, and you'd be doing yourself a grave disservice should you miss out on these wondrous stories. Each story is a complete world unto itself, replete with rich characters, involved plots, and creative conundrums and conclusions that both confound and astound the sharpest of minds. These tales will leave you much richer than before experiencing them, and if you're anything like me, you'll be pondering some stories long after you've reluctantly set the completed book down!