Not So Much, Said The Cat is a largely themeless short story collection from five time Hugo winner Michael Swanwick. Apart from the byline, there’s little to unify these tales, which leap from the end of the Cretaceous to the deserted highways of post-apocalyptic Russia to the mean streets of Hell itself. Sometimes the stories themselves jump boundaries, as in “Goblin Lake,” which starts out as a Munchausen-style tall tale of old Europe and takes a sharp left turn into metafiction, or “The Dala Horse,” which starts as a fairy tale, veers into postapocalytpic grimness, takes a sudden left into cyberwarfare and sentient AIs, and then closes the circle with a fairy tale ending.
Which, I suppose, is the secret – Swanwick can move between genres so effortlessly and so competently that there’s no need for limitations. His mastery of prose is such that the tonal switches from one to the other, from story to story and even paragraph to paragraph, feel smooth and logical. At no point does the prose bring the reader up short, no matter how wild the premise or how seemingly vast the chasms in subject matter might be.
Which leaves the question of the stories themselves and the verdict is that they do live up to Swanwick’s lofty reputation, even if at first glance the sequencing of the tales might seem odd. The first three of the book include “The Man In Gray,” a Twilight Zone-ish “twist” story with a look behind the curtain of reality, the aforementioned “The Dala Horse,” and then “The Scarecrow’s Boy,” which manages to layer a story of robots smuggling a child who survived a massacre across a secure border underneath the language and imagery of a children’s bedtime story. Or, later on, “Passage of Earth,” a science fiction horror tale about an unconventional form of interaction with aliens, sits cheek by jowl with “3 A.M. In the Mesozoic Bar,” a graceful wisp of a piece that demonstrates small actions can have big consequences, depending on when exactly you are. “Pushkin the American” is a historical fantasia about the illustrious writer’s hidden origins, while “Libertarian Russia” keeps things close, geographically speaking, with a short, pungent tale of personal responsibility wrapped in a borscht-drenched Mad Max scenario.
But really, it’s the reappearance of old friends Darger and Surplus (whom you may remember from Dancing With Bears) that energizes the collection most. Here the unconventional con men find themselves with a new partner trying to run an epic con in a zombie-filled New Orleans. Light and breezy, yet never shying away from the dark undertones of its subject matter, the story is in many ways the perfect summary of the stories here, a mix of familiar and new, light-hearted and deathly serious, with multiple genres sitting comfortably next to each other.
The collection ends with “The House of Dreams,” another multi-leveled story with one foot in reality and another in imagination. A British secret agent is captured on the ground in Europe while his partner escapes, and his captors attempt to break him through psychological experimentation. It seems straightforward enough, but the scenarios the alienists put their captive through demonstrates the fragility of “reality,” while the identity of the agent’s partner turns the story into something else entirely. And then there’s the denouement, which takes a sideways step into the literary, as if to tell the reader “you’ve been reading the good stuff all along.”
So maybe there is a theme here after all, the fluidity of writing and the futility of slapping labels and artificial divisions on it. If that’s the case, Swanwick has succeeded admirably. And if it isn’t, the stories are still pretty damn good.