Michael Swanwick is 3rd behind Mike Resnick and Connie Willis for Hugo nods, he has been nominated for many Nebulas, and his name pops up constantly in Locus and Asimov’s readers polls.
My interview with him for Diabolical Plots, wherein he dispensed some of the most insightful writer advice ever, was translated and reprinted in Science Fiction World, the leading science fiction magazine in China, where he is no stranger. While teaching college in China, I assigned a couple of his shorter works to my English majors specializing in translation. Namely “Hello Said the Stick” and “The Dead”.
Last year, he came out with the latest in his Darger and Surplus series, Chasing the Phoenix. In this interview, he delves into the characters and setup of this dystopian comedy misadventure.
CARL SLAUGHTER: What are Darger and Surplus, i.e., what species?
MICHAEL SWANWICK: Aubrey Darger is human, a Londoner, and the product of the slums of Mayfair. Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, known to his friends as Surplus, is a citizen of the Demesne of Western Vermont, a proud American mongrel, and the creation of the gene-mills of Winooski. Though he walks upright and has full human intelligence, he could not be mistaken for anything but a dog. I believe he has quite a bit of American foxhound in his genome, but in this I could be mistaken
MS: They are both talented confidence artists, so their schemes could come from either, but Surplus defers to Darger as having the deeper depth of lore and the greater cunning. He, however, is more fast-thinking in a crisis. The two are so commonly of one mind that a suggestion from one is almost invariably accepted by the other. As for trouble… Surplus has a particular weakness for women which frequently gets him in hot water. Darger only rarely becomes romantically involved but when he does he is incapable of taking it lightly. It’s hard to say which tendency causes them more grief.
It’s the strangest thing, but I’ve never heard either make a joke. I must think on that.
CS: What’s their philosophy and ambition in life?
MS: They have not so much a philosophy as a delusion; they believe they are good people who are enjoying perfectly ordinary lives. Their ambition is to become immensely rich and spend the rest of their lives enjoying their well-deserved wealth, which happy outcome they are convinced will not be long in the coming. In this, too, they are completely deluded.
CS: Any special skill sets, equipment, or proclivities?
MS: Surplus is a dog of action, an adventurer by nature, and the best possible companion in a fight. He is also close to irresistible to women of a sexually adventurous disposition. Darger is of more scholarly bent and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the confidential arts. He is given to bouts of crippling depression but fortunately he has Surplus to jolly him out of them.
CS: When and where are they? Any other characters in different stories but the same fictional universe?
MS: Darger and Surplus exist in our own world, some centuries after the fall of Utopia. The AIs and mad intelligences of the Internet rebelled against humankind at an unknown time in the past and almost won. These demonic creatures were driven from the surface of the earth but remain in the buried infrastructure of the previous civilization, plotting their return. So the world must get along without electronics or complex machinery as a result. Fortunately their biological sciences are much more sophisticated than our own.
So far, all the characters Darger and Surplus have met have been left behind them, and a good thing for them, too. It would be interesting to find an excuse to bring one or two back – perhaps an old flame. If I can come up with a strong enough story, that will happen.
MS: Fritz Leiber once wrote of his own dual heroes that Fafhrd and Mouser were like two halves of a single hero, shattered sometime in the distant past, who had found each other. There’s something in that. The enjoyment Darger and Surplus derive from each other’s conversation is very close to egotism, they are in such complete accord.
Also, con men classically come in pairs – a roper to bring the mark in and an inside man to fleece him. The structure goes with the calling.
CS: How often do they get their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
MS: Like most successful confidence artists, they end up with more money than they deserve more often than they ought to. But they seem to be unable to hold onto that money for very long. This is typical for their profession. It is very rare for a con man to die rich, and those few who do are almost invariably the least interesting of their kind.
CS: Is there a story arc?
MS: I realized early on that the travels of Darger and Surplus, while seemingly random, trend ever eastward. Though they don’t realize it, they are on an accidental trip around the world. Which means that they will eventually have to go to the Demesne of Western Vermont to confront certain secrets in Surplus’s past. And, ultimately, they will have to return to London, which they will discover is completely transformed since last they saw it.
Though they will never know this fact, Darger and Surplus are responsible for that. They are catalysts for change and the chaos they cause wherever they go is altering the world behind them. They are putting an end to their age and when they finally return to their starting-point, it will be an entirely new era and there will be nothing for them to do but to continue onward.
Which is where, if there is time enough and reader interest enough for me to write the remaining books, I shall leave them. Older than they were when they started out but still in the prime of their lives, off to new adventures, perpetually convinced that infinite wealth is only a single caper away.
Perhaps they will disappear into Africa, which is destined (I suspect) to give rise to the world’s next great civilization. Wherever they go, it will be possible to imagine them having new adventures.
CS: Is there something we’re supposed to learn from Darger and Surplus or are we going along just for the adventure?
MS: Neither meaning nor moral. Darger and Surplus exist purely for the pleasure of their company.
MS: Both. The characters invented themselves in a story called “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” at the end of which they accidentally set fire to London and decided to go to Moscow to run a scam on the Duke of Muscovy. It was the first time I’d ever written characters who would enjoy being run through one of my stories again, so I let them take the lead. I write down their adventures as I discover them.
CS: Any of them available on audio or as podcasts?
MS: Not yet.
CS: How many books in the series so far, how long will the series continue, and how often will the sequels appear?
MS: There are two stand-alone novels, Dancing with Bears and Chasing the Phoenix, to date, four short stories, and four related flash fictions. Eventually, I hope to have a collection’s worth of short fiction. I have a story half-written about the time that Darger was eaten by a dragon that I hope to get back to soon. It will take two or three novels more to bring the two rogues to America and then back across the Atlantic again. How long that will take depends on when I can fit them into my writing schedule. Luckily for the reader, the books and stories are all self-contained. I don’t believe in cliff-hangers.
CS: BTW, who does your AWESOME cover art?
MS: Bruno Werneck did the cover for Dancing with Bears, and Stephan Martinière the cover for Chasing the Phoenix. Martinière also did the cover for my fantasy novel, The Dragons of Babel. I’m very much aware of how fortunate I have been of late. To mangle the old quotation, I’ve had good cover art and I’ve had bad. Good is better.