If you like getting your fiction in tiny doses, then you’ll enjoy the book, Cigar Box Faust and Other Miniatures, by multi-award winning science fiction writer Michael Swanwick. If you’re a science fiction fan with a taste for humor, you’ll really adore it. With this fine collection of microfiction, Swanwick proves the writer’s dictum that “less is more.” Even better than the mini-stories that are routinely posted for free on the author’s “Periodic Table of Science Fiction” at SciFi.com, the seventy or so hypershort stories in this book (most under three paragraphs) are a testament to Swanwick’s imaginative genius. Clocking in at less than 100 pages, the book is indeed a collection of “miniatures” that are a joy to savor. Though mostly aimed at fans of science fiction, readers of horror and literary experimentalism will also enjoy sampling the creative morsels in this book quite a bit.
Swanwick structures Cigar Box Faust by organizing the many short pieces into various thematic clusters, logical series, or variations on a theme — patterns he likely used to generate the microscopic tales themselves. The “whimsies” he wrote while strolling through a Picasso exhibit appear here as a series of “Eleven Still-Lifes” which have Picasso doing nutty things like making cubist monsters or serving up butchered alien heads at a dinner table. Using the alphabet to launch a series of 26 musings, he generates “An Abecedary of the Imagination” which features such mini-horror pieces as “J is for Jack” (in which Jack the Ripper somehow manages to get the moral upper hand) and “L is for Lucky Strikes” (the brand of cigarettes which just so happen to be the most sought after commodity in hell). Other clusters in the book have more of a traditional SF focus: there’s a series of tales enumerating the bodies in the solar system (“Archaic Planets”), a short-short litany of literary criticism on Phillip K. Dick (“Eight Takes on Kindred Themes”), and parodic exchanges with the editors of Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction magazines (“Letters to the Editor” and “The Madness of Gordon Van Gelder”). These latter two speak to the book’s primary weakness — the reliance on ‘in jokes’ and allusions to SF culture that only die hard Swanwick fans and other SF writers will be able to fully appreciate. Nonetheless, this book is a gift to his fans, so it’s entirely appropriate. Swanwick keeps his humor and imagination in the foreground, and the amount of fun that this author is having with the form is contagious enough to keep the miniatures from descending into trivial minutia.
Indeed, the series of powerful short-shorts called “Writing in My Sleep” more than makes up for any self-indulgency in the collection. Here Swanwick literally transcribes his “dreamwork”…not in the way you might jot in a dream journal, but in the way a writer might actually compose a manuscript while dreaming. Here he actually wrote those manuscripts down, remaining faithful to the work of his unconscious. And Swanwick’s unconscious writes very good flash fiction. My favorite in the series is a six-paragraph story called “Critics,” in which he writes of a planet where leeches literally parasite writers and artists to death in a sycophantic hell which refers none too subtly back to its title.
The book’s titular story, “Cigar Box Faust,” is also a work of pure genius. It’s a revision of the famous Goethe drama — written as though it were an instruction manual for a little mini-reenactment of “Faust” in a poor man’s puppet theater, using a cigar, a book of matches, and so forth. (Mephistopheles is the cigar cutter, of course). It’s the script of a cute performance that Swanwick has actually put on at late night convention parties. There are similar experiments in this book — from the series of “Brief Essays” — which are humorous and philosophical musings (in one of them, Swanwick claims to have been the first writer to find a rhyme for “Orange” that actually fits into a poem; in another, he roasts a bevy of speculative fiction writers by mixing their names with their own famous book titles, like “The Grotesque Patrick McGrath” and “The Man Who Melted Jack Dann”). Altogether, Cigar Box Faust is ingeniously witty, testifying to both the brilliance of its creator and the power of his brevity. Pardon the cliche, but these miniatures — just like the best candies — are short and sweet. Recommended reading, whether in tiny bites or in one big gulp.
Cigar Box Faust and Other Miniatures by Michael Swanwick. Tachyon Publications. Trade paperback. Color Cover by Freddie Baer. 94 pp. ISBN 1-892391-07-4. $14.95. http://www.tachyonpublications.com