Michael Swanwick is one of the most inventive, non-conforming writers on the market. Though starting his career with a fairly straight-forward novel (In the Drift), he has slowly and steadily turned his imagination and spirit loose, culminating most recently in the idea-explosion that is the Darger and Surplus novels. It is thus in short fiction that one finds Swanwick at his most focused and careful. And the relative limitations are beneficial. I’m on the fence, but I would listen to arguments that short stories are, in fact, Swanwick’s greatest asset. Tales of the Old Earth, Swanwick’s 2000 collection, is nineteen potential reasons.
Opening the collection is “The Very Pulse of the Machine”. An abstract riff (natch) on a Wordsworth poem, the story tells of the astronaut Martha and what happens after her vehicle has an accident on the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Io. Her teammate dying in the crash, Martha elects to attempt to drag the body across the moon to their base. Voices that are either the AI in the dead body’s vacsuit or in Martha’s head accompanying Martha every step of the way, things start to look dire no matter how much meth she huffs, the ground around her even seeming to come alive. In perhaps the best written yet most Weird story in the collection, “Mother Grasshopper” tells of the strange happenings to a young man part of a colony on a space grasshopper (yes, space grasshopper). Confronted by a magician/god one day, he is compelled to follow the man across the land, spreading pestilence and disease. A fortuitous meeting one day changes his direction, but perhaps not his will.