Dancing With Bears – Book Review by Fred Patten

by kiwiztiger

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Dancing With Bears, by Michael Swanwick.
San Francisco, CA, Night Shade Books, May 2011, hardcover $24.99 (268 pages).

51wb22YvMqLThis is the first “Darger and Surplus” novel, although it follows two short stories and a novelette; “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”(2001), “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport” (2002), and “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play” (2005). Aubrey Darger and Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (“Call me Sir Plus”) are two charismatic con-men in the postutopian future. Darger is human; Surplus is a dog. To quote the opening of “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”:

“The dog looked like he had just stepped out of a children’s book. There must have been a hundred physical adaptations required to allow him to walk upright. The pelvis, of course, had been entirely reshaped. The feet alone would have needed dozens of changes. He had knees, and knees were tricky.

To say nothing of the neurological enhancements.

But what Darger found himself most fascinated by was the creature’s costume. His suit fit him perfectly, with a slit in the back for the tail, and – again – a hundred invisible adaptations that caused it to hang on his body in a way that looked perfectly natural.

‘You must have an extraordinary tailor,’ Darger said.

The dog shifted his cane from one paw to the other, so they could shake, and in the least affected manner imaginable replied, ‘That is a common observation, sir.’

The postutopian future might be described as a steampunk world gone mad, with dirigibles, clanky robots in Victorian-era military costumes, and lots of bioengineered animals (also humans), from natural anthropomorphics to fantasy creations like the centaurs and fauns of Greek mythology. All have equal rights. The first three stories, set in London, Paris, and Arcadian Greece, establish that Darger and Surplus are on their way to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, supposedly on a diplomatic mission but actually to pull off a masterful scam.

In Dances With Bears, they finally get to Moscow – but not as they expect. From Byzantium, they talk their way into a large, opulent Arabian wagon train bearing a diplomatic gift from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Grand Duke of Muscovy; seven Pearls Beyond Price of inestimable beauty and value. After months of hardships, including an attack by a mechanical zombie-wolf, the caravan is reduced to only three wagons and almost no survivors except Darger and Surplus, who take command of the remains. These include the treasure for the Grand Duke, which turns out to be seven women, bioengineered to be the most beautiful women who ever lived, made for the Grand Duke alone. No other man can touch them:

“Then, when all was chaos and jubilation, a woman screamed.

Voices hushed. Heads turned. In the center of the room Aetheria was staring in horror at her hand. On her wrist were raw red welts: some the exact size and shape of fingers and one that was the perfect image of a pair of lips.

Into the horrified silence, Arkady stammered, ‘I … I only seized her hand and k-kissed the back of her wrist. I meant nothing bad by it. I was simply happy that she would live.’ He glared about him. ‘Anybody else would have done the same!’


Surplus helped him to his feet. ‘Now you understand why we tried so hard to keep the Pearls away from men. They burn at our touch. The Caliph’s psychogenetists implanted commands to that effect in order to preserve the young ladies’ virginities.’

‘They cannot be unfaithful to their intended groom,’ Darger amplified. ‘Any male’s touch other than his, however light, blisters their skin. A kiss would char their lips to cinder. As for intercourse … well, they would be dead in minutes.’” (pgs. 40-41)

Among Darger’s and Surplus’ other troubles and perils with Muscovy’s both feudal and scientific bureaucracy – which refuses to let them meet the duke — they have to deal with the seven Pearls, who chafe under their enforced abstinence and demand that the two rogues remove it.

‘We are all avid to begin our new lives.’ Zoësophia said. ‘In fact, if we are not presented to the duke soon, I promise you that things will get ugly.’
‘I shall of course make it my first priority to…’

‘More ugly than you can imagine,’ Zoësophia emphasized.” (p. 51)

A plot synopsis would be lengthy, since everyone is plotting against everyone else and what appears to be true is constantly shifting. Even the book’s cover by Bruno Werneck cannot be explained without giving away a major spoiler.

Since Dances With Bears seems to be mostly about humans, what is there about it to appeal to the furry fan? Plenty, thanks to this postutopian future’s unrestrained use of bioengineering.

“Surplus woke to the humble sounds of small-town life: the distant thump of the great green heart of the water pumping station contracting and expanding, birds singing, and the cries of sheep and goats and cows being brought out from their barns. ‘Fooood!’ the sheep bleated and ‘Nowwww,’ moaned the cows. Such animals had vocabularies of only five or six words, which hardly contributed much to interspecies communication. Surplus often thought that whichever bygone scientist it was who had thought it necessary for them to convey such obvious desires must have been an extremely shallow fellow and one, moreover, who had never owned an animal or been on a farm.” (p. 30)

“The parade included flightless griffins with gilded beaks and claws, spider-legged elephants, three-headed giraffes, and even a small sea serpent in a tank of cloudy water, all rented for the day from a local circus, whose tumblers, aerialists, and other performers had dug deep into their costume trunks to re-create themselves as Byzantine lords and courtiers. A team of African unicorns as white as bed sheets and bulkier than water buffalos pulled a float on which the Pearls Beyond Price stood, sat, or reclined, each according to her whim, wearing silk chador in a variety of bright pastels, so that collectively they formed a sherbet rainbow.” (pgs. 43-44)

‘I see you’re fascinated by my eyes.’

Indeed, Surplus was. The eyes were each hemispherical and, on examination, divided into thousands of glass-smooth facets. ‘Do they allow you a 360 degree field of vision? Or perhaps they help you make your way through the dark?’ (p. 53)

“Two eight-foot-tall guards, whose genome was obviously almost entirely derived from Ursus arctos, the Russian brown bear, loomed to either side of the entrance. The blades of their halberds were ornamented with ormolu swirls, and yet were obviously deadly. They bared sharp teeth in silent growls, but when Chortenko presented his papers (for the fourth time since entering the Kremlin), they waved the party within.” (p. 120)

The reader may enjoy such postutopian Russian names as Gulagsky, Count Sputnikovitch-Kominsky, Anya Pepsicolova, and Baronessa Lukoil-Gazproma. Dancing With Bears is not a furry novel, but it is one that furry readers should enjoy.

– Fred Patten

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