Unexpected Questions With Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick published his first story in 1980, making him one of a generation of new writers that included Pat Cadigan, William Gibson, Connie Willis, and Kim Stanley Robinson.  In the decades since, he has been honored with the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards and received a Hugo Award for fiction in an unprecedented five out of six years.  He also has the pleasant distinction of having lost more major awards than any other science fiction writer. He is best known for his Iron Dragon fantasy trilogy, written over the course of 25 years, and for the Nebula Award-winning science fiction novel, Stations of the Tide.

He was never a Cyberpunk, though he has often been mistaken for one.

In all, Swanwick has written ten novels, close to two hundred works of short fiction, and countless flash fiction. He has also published book-length studies of Hope Mirrlees and James Branch Cabell and a book-length interview with the late Gardner Dozois. Every September he writes a Halloween story, word by word, on fallen leaves, and serializes it a day at a time on the Web.


If you were to write a fantasy-themed cookbook, what recipes would you include?

My wife’s. Marianne Porter is (in addition to being the publisher of her “nanopress,” Dragonstairs Press) a brilliant cook and whenever I need a recipe or a menu in my fiction, she provides it. She once created a recipe for haunch of unicorn. It was brilliant and very tasty.

If you were to write a book about a group of superheroes with completely useless powers what would their powers be?

One would definitely be the Whizzer. The mostly-forgotten golden age character was able to whirl like a top. My version would be able to take a powerful, supervillain-deterring whiz on an instant’s notice. Also the character Gardner Dozois came up with when his pal George R. R. Martin invited him to participate in the Wild Cards books. Gardner’s character would have the ability to turn himself senile at will. I forget what the character’s name was, but that’s okay–he forgot it too.

George didn’t take Gardner up on the idea. Which I’m sure was Gardner’s intent all along.


What’s the silliest misconception you’ve had about something scientific, and how did you learn that you had misapprehended?

I once wanted to write a story featuring a space elevator on Mercury. Then I did the math and realized that since Mercury’s rotation was so slow the elevator would have to be so long that it would intersect with the Sun. Extremely embarrassing. Luckily, the mistake was made in private so nobody else knew about it. Until now.


If aliens were to visit Earth, what do you think their first impression would be?

By sheer coincidence, one of the stories I’m currently working on begins with an avatar of a sentient star arriving on Earth. His first reaction is: “Well, this is splendid!”

Of course, the story is set several thousand years in the future and humanity has had a lot of time to clean up its act.


If you could alter any one single natural law, what would it be and how would you change it?

I’d alter entropy so that it didn’t apply to my wife. I’ve never had a problem with eventually growing old and dying. But I think she deserves to stay young and live forever.


Define “Science Fiction” as Damon Knight did (“What we’re pointing to when we say ‘Science Fiction'”), but without using your finger.

Science Fiction is the stuff I write when I’m not writing fantasy. Buy one of my short fiction collections and you’ll see what I mean.


Name the strangest/weirdest place you’ve ever written. What was it?

My story “Mother Grasshopper” was set on a planet-sized grasshopper. When I was working on it, I asked Charles Sheffield for advice on determining the gravitational gradient on it. After determining that I knew that in a non-fictional universe  gravity would pull such a thing into a sphere, Charles started to explain the math but then stopped and said, “Michael, the calculations would be extremely  difficult. I think you  should just make it all up.”

Sheffield was a hard-science guy. I said, “Charles, this is very disillusioning.”

But I took his advice. Late in the story, as the protagonist is riding a train up an antenna into orbit, he plots out the gravity and it forms a “graceful Sheffield curve.” When I told Charles this, he moved his hand to trace out a sine wave and said, “Oh, you mean like this?”

“Yes,” I said. “A handwave.”

Charles was always a fast man on the uptake.


If you were stranded on a deserted planet with only one book to read but it turned out to be one of your own, how would you feel?

I’d wish I’d written it much longer.


If you had to choose between being a mermaid and a dragon, which would you choose and why?

I’m a dreadfully cis male, so it wouldn’t be easy for me to adapt to being female. But I’d choose that over a dragon any day because in my universes dragons are creatures of malevolent evil. And all the people I’ve ever met who fit that description were deeply, darkly unhappy.

It would be an easier choice if I could be a merman. But I suppose that as a mermaid, I’d be a lesbian so that would be okay. An old lesbian, probably, one beyond her adventurous years but with pleasant memories.


If you could have any sci-fi gadget in real life, what would it be and what practical use would you have for it?

The transmogrifier from Calvin and Hobbes. It can do pretty much anything. I’d use it to change nuclear waste into Sunday funnies the size they were when I was a child and they were as large as the universe.


If you could time travel to any point in history, what era would you choose and why?

The seventies. There are a lot of good people I knew then who have since died. I’d like to just hang with them, the way I did at the time. I’d also slip my younger self a wad of cash and a list of books to buy and read. But that’s not important; he was doing okay on his own.


If you were secretly an alien visitor to the Earth, why are you here?

I’m here for the science fiction, baby! What else have you got that’s half so good?


Michael Swanwick’s most recent book is The Best of Michael Swanwick Volume 2 from Subterranean Press. His most recent novel is The Iron Dragon’s Mother, a stand-alone volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy. He can be found on Facebook and Bluesky and his Website is located at www.michaelswanwick.com. His wife, Marianne Porter, is the founder, editor, and sole proprietor of Dragonstairs Press which publishes hand-made, signed, limited-edition chapbooks that typically sell out on their day of publication. They can be found at www.dragonstairs.com.

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