The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick and a bit of John Clute's review

i don't know what to make of John Clute's review of The Dragons of Babel. not that it (the review) isn't a brilliant deconstruction of Michael Swanwick's brilliant deconstruction of the 'hidden monarch' template, but rather, i suppose, a nit i feel compelled to pick after reading something about a previous comment attributed to Mr Clute, re: the fabricated world in which The Dragons of Babel is set, which is the same world into which Jane is thrust in the far darker, angrier, more relentlessly cynical The Iron Dragon's Daughter, in which he (Mr Clute) says something to the effect that Mr Swanwick has constructed an 'anti-fantasy' in which the very tropes which bring us comfort in typical fantasies--magic and elves and faeries and even dragons &c--fail to do so, never allowing us to use them to escape the realities of our own world. in his review of The Dragons of Babel, Mr Clute, to my mind, excuses us from any guilt for doing with The Dragons of Babel what Mr Clute had (allegedly--i haven't read the source) said Mr Swanwick would not let us do with The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Mr Clute lays it down for us, saying that Mr Swanwick has written 'a tale whose very speed burns euhemerism--which is the process of interpreting myths as being mundane events misunderstood by the primitive folk who tell stories about the world--to ash.' which i admit isn't at all the same as saying 'The Dragons of Babel is good, clean, escapist fluff', but at least saunters vaguely in that direction. sort of.

which leads me now to think i'm probably better off wondering what i should make of The Dragons of Babel in light of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. because now, after reading Mr Clute's review, it has become possible for me to see The Dragons of Babel as a kind of subversion of what The Iron Dragon's Daughter did, and did so well.

to be fair, there is still quite a bit of the old cynicism from The Iron Dragon's Daughter on show in The Dragons of Babel (henceforth TIDD and TDOB, or Daughter and Babel, or maybe Iron Dragon and Dragons, respectively, depending on which moves me in the moment). perhaps more importantly, TDOB retains the fierce intelligence of TIDD, never once letting us think that Mr Swanwick is getting soft in his old age. or, rather, not getting soft *that way*. because, in fact, Dragons is a far kinder, gentler book than Iron Dragon ever was, and i feel almost sorry for the way the earlier book treated its protagonist.

certainly, Babel's protagonist, Will le Fey, undergoes his fair share of the requisite 'hero's trials and tribulations' and then some, but i for one never felt this was a particularly 'dark' book, certainly not in any way like Daughter.

instead, what TDOB is, unapologetically, unrelentingly BRILLIANT, in every sense of the word, including the one that suggests UPLIFTING and LIFE-AFFIRMING, two things TIDD was most decidedly not. in other words, what Mr Swanwick has done to subvert the essence of TIDD is this: he has allowed redemption to become an undeniable, integral part of Will's story.

moreover, if TIDD worked by going head on against the conventions of the genre, TDOB, true to its core trickster theme--and yes, it is very much a trickster story--works firmly within those conventions, if in ways that are very much its own.


Mr Swanwick's Faerie may recall to more recent fantasy readers' minds China Mieville's Bas Lag, with its hectic, multi-ethnic (as Mr Clute points out), decadent urban society and the combination of elements both science fictional and fantastical, but to my mind Swanwick's is the superior construct. Mr Swanwick's alchemy is far more fluid, resorting to none of the rather forced justifications Mr Mieville imposes on his world for the coexistence of the two sets of elements. Mr Swanwick recognizes that they are all, whether 'science fictional' or 'fantastical', products of the imagination, textural instruments of narrative, and handles them (and handles them deftly) as such. moreover, Mr Swanwick more successfully borrows from myth and folklore, recalling Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Mike Mignola's delightful guignol in Hellboy, and hewing closer to the kind of motley cast one finds in the Titus Groan books, albeit without the delightful twist of Mervyn Peake's creations being all, ostensibly, human despite their grotesqueries; at any rate, i have always felt that Mr Mieville was better off relying solely on his admittedly magnificent imagination.

there is another reason why TDOB bears comparison to Mr Mieville's oeuvre--and this is what Mr Clute seems to have deftly sidestepped in his review: while TDOB (again unlike TIDD) can be enjoyed solely as an escapist romp through an overwhelmingly colorful and richly textured if somewhat sordid--squalid?--sordid fantasy construct, there is very definitely some Politics-Capital-P going on here. not punk-rock-adolescent-rebel-coming-of-age-schoolyard-and-living-room-and-dinner-table politics as in TIDD, though there's a dose of that as well, but real-world-current-events-news-at-eleven-old-farts-on-a-bench Politics, the kind Mr Mieville has been known to engage with head on. Mr Swanwick, however, doesn't take the bull by the horns. rather, it feels more like he's hitched a ride on its back or is simply running with it: the Politics in TDOB feels like the kind of subtext that is woven intrinsically into the 'hidden monarch' template, another thread, a means for the narrative rather than an end; Mr Swanwick seems to be saying that the Politics is as much a part of the collective subconscious as the fey, trolls and speaking toads &c that populate the story. there is a scene that recalls 9/11, and yet the horror is undercut...but i won't give it away. suffice to say that although the Politics is there, there seems to be an unwillingness to fully engage with it, a refusal, almost, to bear any responsibility for what is being said and pointed out whatsoever.

he may be right about it all, but on some level i can't help but find it a bit gimmicky. if it didn't work so well, i might be led to think that Mr Swanwick is playing another trick on us (and there are many tricks in TDOB), trying to convince us that the story he is telling is Relevant-Capital-R, when all it is is good, clean, escapist fluff, an old emperor clothed in the latest fashions.

whatever the case, i happily confess myself hoodwinked. at the very least, though no longer the same kind of audacious subversion of the genre that was The Iron Dragon's Daughter, The Dragons of Babel, even while submitting to the demands of the genre template it deconstructs, cunningly shows us just how fresh and intelligent fantasy can still be.