Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick
There’s a well-entrenched tendency to think genre fiction should always take itself seriously. Traditionally, this means spaceships navigate the cosmos, while mages wave their magic wands, and horror stuff happens to innocent victims (often pulchritudinous in the early pulps). There’s rarely time to crack a smile as worlds have to be saved from who-knows-what threats, while fates worse-than-death dance attendance on those well-endowed girls. Except, occasionally, humour did rear its head as in the work of Henry Kuttner and William Tenn. In a world infected by fear of nuclear destruction during the Cold War, we used to look forward to anything that would break the mould and give us a chance to laugh.
Today, the vast majority of authors churn out millions of words that range from the humourless to extreme grim. The assumption is that modern sensibilities prefer their entertainment to come wrapped in danger with the risk factors high. Just as people queue up to ride the latest white-knuckle extravaganza in an adventure theme park, so we want our fiction full of tension in full page-turning suspense mode. Well, every now and again, I like to sit back and enjoy a book that makes me smile. As a true carnivore, I can and do eat semi-raw steak as a main course, but the delights of bonnes bouches, those tasty little morsels you can pop in your mouth to produce one of those taste explosions. . . They really bring a smile of appreciation to the lips. It’s the skill of the chef to produce something so unexpectedly exquisite. It’s a rare delight (pun intended given the earlier reference to steak) to be savoured.
All of which brings us to Dancing With Bears (Night Shade Books, 2011) by Michael Swanwick. This is the first novel featuring Darger and Surplus. Previously, their appearances have been confined to shorter lengths in “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport”, and “Girls and Boys Come Out to Play”. The second little cat in Paris is the lightest of the conflations, while the first adventure in London is slightly more substantial. The third is the least satisfying. Our series characters are conmen who wish to amass wealth with the least possible effort. To this end, they dangle temptation in the way of the rich and, through both direction and misdirection, encourage the movement of wealth in their direction. Except, they are beset by misfortune and, despite their best efforts, often escape with little more than their lives. Such is always the way when our heroes must continue to their next adventure in no better state than as they started.
In this case, they’ve managed to attach themselves to a caravan taking virgins, specially trained in the theoretical side of perfect love-making, as a gift from Byzantium to the Duke of Muscovy, the current ruler of Russia. This would be the ideal berth except the women have been programmed to die if touched by any man other than the Duke. That’s a fairly good deterrent to any physical contact in its own right, but it’s reinforced by the presence of some gene-modified guards. They’re not very bright but, as Neanderthals, they can rip any inconvenient man to pieces without breaking sweat. These Pearls include Zeosophia who’s also trained as a spy. It will be her job to bend as many Russians to the Byzantium cause as possible. On the way, the caravan picks up a slightly less than innocent young man and a strannik, a religious pilgrim with a hidden agenda.
Upon their arrival in Moscow, Surplus poses as the Ambassador and Darger goes underground, eventually finding a nice warm place to curl up and read. The Duke proves something of an anomaly and all the key decision-making seems to be done through Chortenko, a sociopath who rules through the usual mixture of blackmail and intimidation. Naturally, he sends one of his minions to find Darger. This is Pepsicolova, a dedicated informant until her supply of enhanced cigarettes is threatened. Thereafter, she’s a dangerously homicidal free agent who, together with a man in charge of a loose cannon, manages to save most of Moscow from burning to the ground.
This is a story of a new revolution in a future Moscow where the world is struggling to recover from an assortment of plagues and outbreaks of violence from intelligent machines. As you might suspect, this makes the basic situation inherently chaotic and we are left to watch as the flapping of butterfly wings in Baikonur brings a perfect storm to the streets and underworld of Moscow. Think of it as fantasy meets science fiction in a post-apocalyse setting. In a way, Surplus and Darger are irrelevant. They come with a grand scheme to con the Duke, but find themselves caught up in events too momentous to be controlled. Their only hopes, as everything spirals out of control, are to stay alive long enough to find something valuable and portable to carry away with them from the wreckage.
Although this is a novel built up from multiple set-pieces, it’s really only an amuse-bouche: a refined sampler to show off the chef’s skills. There are some genuinely delightful moments, everything being held together by a mixture of sheer writing bravado and a sequence of sometimes bizarre coincidences to drive the plot forward. This is for anyone who wants a change of pace from the more usual stolid plots and pedestrian writing. Dancing With Bears sings of wit and joyful exuberance — bears are included but their involvement in fights is optional. I enjoyed every minute!
For the record, this book has been nominated as one of the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award Finalists.