Michael Swanwick’s Dancing With Bears is what Dostoyevsky would have written, if he’d ever attempted a post-apocalyptic steampunk-esque comedy of manners-slash-heist-story featuring genetically engineered virgins, genocidal robot AIs intent on resurrecting the corpse of Lenin, mad monks, orgies, and a pair of con men, one of whom is actually a genetically modified dog.
Then again, maybe not.
Yes, all that’s in the book. So are all sorts of skullduggery, assassination, assignation, politicking and general deceit, largely carried out by those most dashing of con men, Darger and Surplus. To say the book is convoluted is an understatement. It’s also, by turns, obscene, raucous, hysterically funny, and a great deal of fun.
The story, as such things are wont to do, starts small. Darger and Surplus attach themselves to a caravan bearing gifts from Byzantium to the Duke of Muscovy. Said gifts, of course, are the finest expressions of Byzantium’s genetic engineering, beautiful – and virginal – women of remarkable talent, carnivorous curiosity, and matrimonial destiny. Unfortunately, the caravan runs afoul of a marauding robot wolf (bear with me here). With the Byzantine ambassador dead and the con men in charge (don’t ask how), the merry caravan makes its way to Moscow regardless, there to be entangled in a whole new web of deceit, politicking, sex and madness. Darger and Surplus see this as an opportunity to make a killing, figuratively. The young Byzantine ladies have their own ambitions, which may or may not involve getting various young men killed. The head of the Duke’s secret police has a plot of his own, one that puts all of the other players at risk. And above it all is the secretive figure of the Duke, who holds the key – perhaps – to saving his beloved country from the ravages of vengeful AIs who don’t even like one another very much.
Swanwick’s future Moscow is a fascinating place, formal and stratified, lusty and seething with intrigue. He shows the reader every inch of it, from its morlock-haunted sewers to its gorgeously decorated palaces. Darger and Surplus move through it, graceful curators of the city’s tapestry and players, making the discovery of the setting almost as much fun as the plot.
Now, if you’re the sort of reader who picks up a book and sees Neanderthal bodyguards with Brooklyn accents, characters with names like Pepsicolova, and drug-fueled group sex in the name of the Divine, then sniffs that it’s not “appropriate”, then you probably won’t enjoy Dancing With Bears. If, however, you’re the sort of revels in the gloriously absurd, marvels at how such a ridiculous assortment of pieces can be made to fit together effortless, and enjoys wacky hijinks for their own sake, then by all means join Darger and Surplus for their latest escapade.
(Night Shade, 2011)