Who Goes There?
Michael Swanwick has been in the game for over forty years, and shows no sign of slowing down. He debuted in 1980 with a pair of short stories, “Ginungagap” and “The Feast of Saint Janis,” both of which would garner Nebula nominations—not something you see every day with someone’s first work. Swanwick would continue to put out mostly short stories, somewhat sporadically, throughout the ’80s, and even at this early point in his career it was clear he was a writer of a different caliber than most of his peers. While Swanwick did sometimes contribute to then-newfangled cyberpunk scene (see “Dogfight,” his collaboration with William Gibson), he would ultimately be hard to pin down as either a cyberpunk or as one of the so-called humanists; the truth is that Swanwick’s influences are markedly different from those of William Gibson or Kim Stanley Robinson. It also took the SFF world a frustratingly long time to recognize Swanwick’s talents; despite his two Nebula nominations from the outset, it would take another decade for him to win one, coming with his masterful and bewildering 1991 novel Stations of the Tide.
1985 was a big year for Swanwick, though by no means the last of those big years (it’s honestly hard to find Swanwick at a point where he’s not on top of things). Not only did we see In the Drift, his debut novel (greatly expanded from his earlier short story “Mummer Kiss”), but we got some major early short stories from him, including the aforementioned “Dogfight” and the solo story “The Transmigration of Philip K.” Oh yeah, and we got “The Blind Minotaur.” Now, whereas a lot of Swanwick’s early work would appear in either Omni or Asimov’s Science Fiction, “The Blind Minotaur” appeared in Amazing Stories, which surprisingly was still a thing at the time. Why did I pick “The Blind Minotaur” and not something more famous by Swanwick? For one, I was grabbed by the title. I hadn’t read it before, and I’d been meaning to get more into Swanwick’s early stuff. I could’ve reviewed one of his more famous stories, like “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” but I wanted to tackle something more obscure.
“The Blind Minotaur” was first published in the March 1985 issue of Amazing Stories, which is on the Archive. It hasn’t been reprinted much, unfortunately, and both of the major books it’s been reprinted in are themselves out of print now. First we have Swanwick’s short story collection Gravity’s Angels, released in 1991 (also a major year for Swanwick) and comprising most of the short fiction from the first decade of his career. There’s also Gardner Dozois’s anthology The Good New Stuff, which focuses on adventure SF from the late ’70s to the late ’90s, and this would be combined with its predecessor, The Good Old Stuff, to form The Good Stuff. None of these are hard to find used; if I remember right I got The Good Stuff for no more than $15, which ain’t half bad considering it’s two anthologies in one. There’s also the more obscure anthology Bestiary!, co-edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, which collects stories about mythical creatures reappropriated in modern SFF fiction.
We’re on a far-off planet where the Minotaur, a man with a bull’s head, is being guided by his supposed daughter Yarrow. We never learn the Minotaur’s name, but we soon learn that he is immensely strong and respected, or at least conscpicuous among the normal off-worlders. He’s also blind. Despite his lack of sight, though, his other senses are impeccable, having been heightened by his blindness. Even so, without his sight he needs help getting around.
This was not the replacement world spoken of and promised to the blind. It was chaotic and bewildering, rich and contradictory in detail. The universe had grown huge and infinitely complex with the dying of the light, and had made him small and helpless in the process.
The Minotaur is an immortal, which we don’t get a clear definition of at first, but we at least get the sense that he does not age, though apparently immortals can’t heal naturally. I feel like in this far-future setting it’d be possible to get eye implants, but whatever. Of course, it’s not entirely futuristic; the setting, which is not described in great detail, comes off almost more ancient than futuristic. Within a few pages I’m reminded of Roger Zelazny’s fiction, especially This Immortal and Lord of Light, not to mention Creatures of Light and Darkness, although “The Blind Minotaur” doesn’t straddle the line between SF and fantasy as much. What Swanwick also takes from Zelazny is a curious balance between elegant prose descriptions and a penchant for the vulgar; this story right here is poetic at times, but it’s also horny. Part of me wonders if, even in the ’80s, certain magazine editors had reservations about publishing sexually explicit content. George H. Scithers, then the editor for Amazing Stories, was by no means a prude, but his tenure at Asimov’s Science Fiction showed a lack of keenness for printing edgy material.
While I do find it a bit eyebrow-raising that several women throughout hit up the Minotaur (I feel like having sex with a man who has a bull’s head would make one hesitate), in fairness it’s said that the Minotaur is pretty physically in shape. I mean, not that I’m not into that or anything, but Hank Jankus’s interior artwork paints the Minotaur as a snack, all things considered. Not helping matters is the fact that he’s mostly naked for the whole thing.
We jump back and forth between the past and present, between the Minotaur’s current life as something akin to a bum, his daughter keeping him company, and his past as a vigorous circus performer, picking up babes and working with his friend and colleague, the Harlequin. The result is a story that feels more like two short-shorts in one, but both of these feel rather unfinished—not in the prose department, as Swanwick is excellent as always on a sentence-by-sentence level, but rather in how the Minotaur’s blindness rubs off on the reader. It could also be that I’m a big dummy and that there are vital pieces of information I missed that would, in fact, create a more complete and satisfying narrative.
This is a story that’s both easy and hard to spoil, because Swanwick doesn’t let us in on what’s going on all the time. There’s enough material implied here for at least a novella, but at 15 pages, we’re only given what feels like mere glimpses into a bvast future world. We know that the Minotaur, the Harlequin, and the Woman are immortals, and being immortals apparently gives them both superhuman abilities and a certain privilege in a society where the vast majority of people are normal humans. The Harlequin, as befits his title, is something like a court jester, both the Minotaur’s best friend in his memories and something of a mischievous tormenter. Immortals don’t have names, but instead have titles; I’m not sure if the immortals picked their own titles or if the Lords (a highly advanced alien race we’re not given much info on) had bestowed these titles upon them.
There Be Spoilers Here
While the Minotaur is indeed blind during scenes set in the present, his memories of life before he lost his sight are relatively vivid, although there are still questions left unanswered. I never figured out why (at least on a first read) the Minotaur had killed the Harlequin, though there’s not much of a mystery as to why he would gouge his own eyes out. The closest I can come to finding an explanation is that it has to do with jealousy over the Woman (we’re never told what the Woman represents, but given that the Minotaur and the Harlequin are modeled after figures or archetypes, I suspect the Woman is a stand-in for the Biblical Eve). Despite his violent past, the Minotaur has become something of a mystic since then—not a messianic figure, but rather a monk who does not adhere strictly to a particular faith. Blinding himself seemed to unlock a door in his mind, and with it the Minotaur experienced what we might call violent transcendence, or a violent breakthrough. This is all an early attempt on Swanwick’s part to capture, in a way that strikes me as vaguely Catholic (think Flannery O’Connor), transcendence by way of physical brutality, and it’s by no means his last attempt.
By the end of the story, the Minotaur has chilled out and accepted Yarrow as his daughter, if not biologically then spiritually. In their final scene together, we get reconcilitation between these characters, but we also get kind of a subtle info dump (more the shadow of an info dump than the real thing) about the Lords and the immortals, which up till now had been little more than mentioned in passing.
Yarrow did not move away. There was a slight tremble in her voice when she spoke. “You still haven’t told me anything.”
“Ah,” the Minotaur said. For a moment he was silent, mentally cataloging what she would need to know. The history of the Lords, to begin with. Their rise to power, how they had shaped and orchestrated the human psyche, and why they thought the human race had to be held back. She needed to know of the creches, of their bioprogramming chemicals, and of those immortals released from them who had gone on to become legend. She needed to know everything about the immortals, in fact, for the race had been all but exterminated in the Wars. And how the Lords had endured as long as they had. How their enemies had turned their toys against them. All the history of the Wars. It would not be a short telling.
The Lords are implied to be a forerunner race which had uplifted humanity, or at least had helped guide humanity’s development. It’s also at this point that we’re all but told that the so-called immortals are genetically engineered humanoids (though I’m not sure if they’re normal humans that had been altered, or humans who were engineered to be this way from birth), with the Minotaur being one of them. The story’s ending is a somewhat open one, with the Minotaur, now reconciled with Yarrow, about to make a public speech to passersby about not his past in particular, but the past that led to his creation: the Lords, the wars which caused their downfall, the immortals, everything.
If “The Blind Minotaur” doesn’t seem to have a beginning or end (you could shuffle some of these scenes around and wind up with the same effect), it may be because mythology itself is cyclical. The Minotaur itself is an ancient Greek mythological figure, with the head of a bull and the body of a man, and the Minotaur of Swanwick’s story does indeed strike me as being an acient figure himself; not only is his age ambiguous (though surely he must be very old), but his equally ancient worldview does not even run counter much with the future society he now lives in. Basically the only piece of clothing we see the Minotaur wear is a loincloth, and in flashbacks we find that he was also a circus performer, and perhaps more subtly, a male prostitute. Of course, circus performance is its own form of prostitution, and prostitution is often said to be the oldest profession. The distant past and the distant future have converged, resulting in a world where myth and reality have become indistinguishable.
A Step Farther Out
This story, as with a lot of Swanwick’s, is both allusive and elusive; we don’t get clear answers to the Minotaur’s backstory, as if the Minotaur losing his sight also affected his ability to remember his own past, his memories becoming interchangeable with his dreams. There is a great deal of implied lore, but due to the story’s length, along with the fact that it’s a standalone, we’re kept at arm’s length as to what the hell is going on behind the scenes. As such, we’re also not allowed to relate to the Minotaur too much, since his ability to both operate in the present and recall his past is crippled. Swanwick would (I would say more successfully) experiment further with commenting on myth with far-future settings in his later works, especially Stations of the Tide (itself a retelling of Shakepeare’s The Tempest). At this point in his career, Swanwick’s ambitions were becoming clear, though it’s clear that he was trying to iron out the wrinkles in his technique.
“The Blind Minotaur” catches Swanwick when his influences are at their most overt. For one he’s a big fan of Philip K. Dick, and this had been apparent since the beginning; less apparent are the debts he owes to Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany, although “The Blind Minotaur” stands as practically an homage to both. In his introduction to the story in The Good New Stuff, Dozois notes Swanwick’s inventiveness as well as his nods to Dick, Zelazny, and Delany.
Another big influence on Swanwick, as on [Bruce] Sterling, was clearly the early work of Samuel R. Delany; this is especially clear with the evocative story that follows, “The Blind Minotaur,” which rings with strong echoes of Delany’s work, particularly The Einstein Intersection—although, as always, Swanwick has changed the melody line and the orchestration and the fingering to make the material uniquely his own.”
Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and Zelazny’s This Immortal and Lord of Light are SF novels that transfer mythical and/or religious figures to settings where they very much don’t belong; in the Delany, for instance, the non-human characters (humanity itself having died out a long time ago) take the forms of human mythological figures in an effort to make sense of the now-dead culture. “The Blind Minotaur” is indeed evocative, but it’s also often ambiguous, and Swanwick seemed to leave his world deliberately unfinished, with a lot of holes left in the background. After a first reading I can’t say I entirely made sense of it, but I did enjoy it, and a like much of Swanwick’s work I suspect it’ll only get stronger upon rereading and further reflection.
See you next time.