Book Review: “Chasing the Phoenix” by Michael Swanwick

Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick

This is the latest in a series of stories set in a post-collapse Earth, featuring two wandering con artists, Darger and Surplus. I hadn’t read them until I encountered the short story “Tawny Petticoats” in TYBSF&F.

Swanwick’s future is centuries after the big collapse of technology. Our times are known as the Utopian age, a time of unimaginable wealth and technological abilities. The wreckage and runs of our times are seen and vaguely remembered, but mostly gone. (The collapse apparently involved a ‘war’ between humans and AIs living in the Internet.)

But the later age has many wonders and technologies that seem close to magic, including routine genetic manipulations that yield among other things Surplus: genetically canine, but with a human brain and personality.

Swanwick takes pleasure in slipping these amazing things into asides and the most mundane situations, which is part of the fun. The story isn’t about technology, but takes place in a time when nanotech and genetic engineering are common, indeed ubiquitous. Peasants grow what we would consider magical crops, one may choose to drink wisdom (nanotech teaching programs that infuse your brain to teach calculus or a novel) instead of oblivion, and every city present unique gardens and products.

What the stories are about, of course, is people. And people seem pretty much just like us. They are astounded at the mysteries of the Utopian age, but take present day wonders for granted.

Chasing the Phoenix tells what happens when Darger and Surplus visit the warring kingdoms of China, and get involved with the march of the “Hidden King” as he marches to reunite China and become the Hidden Emperor.

War is war, but confidence men prefer to win through deception and harvest wealth and power. Court politics are nasty everywhere, and their intrigues are complicated by a soap opera of crushes, love affairs, and the rest of the irrationality of love.

This is a fun book to read, and Swanwick has a slick style which makes you read carefully so you don’t miss something (and there is a lot going on off stage that you have to listen carefully to follow). And, of course, the everyday magic that the people take for granted is tossed in casually, so you have to watch out.


  1. Swanwick, Michael, Chasing the Phoenix, New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 2015.


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