In Michael Swanwick's latest novel, Dancing with Bears, a couple of charming con men set out for post-apocalyptic Moscow, only to blunder into a revolutionary mess.
Darger and Surplus are on their way from Byzantium to Moscow, to deliver a caravan of beautiful concubines (known as the Pearls Beyond Price) to wed the Duke of Muscovy. They're not entirely on the up-and-up, though. On their way, they meet a strannik, a religious pilgrim, who wants to get to sin city to help bring about the Eschaton, along with a silly boy who just wants to get in one of the Pearls' pants. And when they finally get to Moscow, handing off the lovelies isn't as simple as it seemed. Plus, there are nefarious forces stoking the fires of civil unrest (for their own purposes, naturally).
Swanwick has a light touch, and therefore manages to pull off something unlikely: a buddy comedy set in post-apocalyptic Russia. Dancing with Bears resembles nothing so much as one of those old "Road To..." movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Darger and Surplus are a couple of likable rogues, perpetually in the midst of some elaborate con. Their rate of success is somewhat mixed: Despite a flair for larceny, the pair wreak havoc wherever they go. (Rumor has it they burned London to the ground.) In their capacity as escorts of Byzantium's ambassador to Muscovy, they're certainly working some kind of scheme, though it's a long time before their agenda is entirely clear.
Darger is an intellectual, depressive, strangely nondescript British man. Surplus is an American dog, genetically modified to walk, talk, and function like a human being. We're never told how they met. Their origins are not revealed. These are not characters in whom we become deeply emotionally invested, but their misadventures are endlessly amusing. Surplus quickly takes on the role of ambassador and therefore spends much of his time dealing with the stubbornly horny Pearls, their hard-headed and resourceful ringleader Zoesophia and their dim-witted Neanderthal guards. Darger, on the other hand, acquires a pint-sized partner in street crime.
With this zany approach, Swanwick subverts an entire swath of the post-apocalyptic canon, to pretty hilarious effect. The concept behind this weird half-medieval, half-futuristic world is that we all got too dependent on the Internet and the AIs decided to kill everybody. Humans managed to beat them back, but got thrown back to the Dark Ages for their troubles. The points of comparison to Canticle for Leibowitz are obvious, with some slight updates for the networked era. But instead of some serious monks trying to keep the faith in a cruel world, we get a couple of con men dealing with crazed concubines.
He's also made good use of his setting. Swanwick has managed to incorporate disparate bits of culture like Ivan the Terrible's secret library, the ancient relationship between Russia and Byzantium, stranniks, and Lenin's preserve body into his story. Even better, his references all fit the story and none feels awkward or unnecessary, as can sometimes be the case when writers play with an unfamiliar setting. He also gets to work in names like "Anna Pepsicolova" and "Baroness Lukoil-Gazproma," for extra fun.
There are a couple of weak moments. For example, the initial infodump is clunky as hell. Ever tried to feed a liver pill to a cat? You'll feel a lot of sympathy for Fluffy after this:
As you doubtless know, the Utopians destroyed their perfect society through their own indolence and arrogance. Having built machines to do their manual work for them, they built further machines to do all their thinking. Computer webs and nets proliferated, until there were cables and odes so deeply buried and so plentiful that no sane man believes they will ever be eradicated.
Do not want! This is a perfectly acceptable background story, and Swanwick uses it to create an engrossing world for his characters. But it would have been nice to receive this medicine mixed in with our Fancy Feast. We've all seen the Matrix. It wouldn't take more than a couple of ominous hints about evil webs and we could fill in the blanks.
Swanwick recovers quickly from this early stumble, though, and overall Dancing with Bears is a fast-paced, enjoyable read.