A Brief History of the Notorious Tricksters Darger and Surplus

Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick
Written by Michael Swanwick

Darger and Surplus, post-utopian con men extraordinaire, were born in a moment of idle whimsy. I had the desire to write about a talking dog. So I stood one up on two legs and dressed him as if he had just stepped out of a Mother Goose illustration—with lace at his wrists and a silver knobbed cane in one paw. Because he needed a place to be, I put him on the docks of a future London. Because he needed somebody to talk to, I introduced Aubrey Darger, a nondescript man unencumbered with honesty.

At which point, the two rogues seized control of what was to become “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” and ran off with it, leaving me trotting in their wake, scribbling furiously and crying, “Wait! Sirs? Wait for me!”

At the end of their first adventure, Darger and Surplus accidentally set fire to London. This was their original sin, an act whose consequences would follow them forever. Over the next several stories (there will be more) they bounced about a de-industrialized but biologically sophisticated Europe, always setting out for one destination and arriving somewhere else. The boys being nothing if not distractible. In Prague, they unleashed a plague of golems. In Germany, Darger was eaten by a dragon. Always, they were headed for Moscow, where they planned to run the greatest scam of their careers.

Prior to discovering Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (Surplus’s full name), and his mentor, I had never written series characters. I didn’t write stories whose protagonists would want to return for more. Darger and Surplus, however, were oblivious. They believed that they were good people having an excellent time. In both respects, they were completely deluded. But as long as they were having fun, so was I.

One day, casting about for what to write next, I realized that the time had come for my heroes to finally reach Russia. Recognizing that such a long-anticipated event would require a full novel to chronicle, I wrote Dancing With Bears. I will not say whether or not Moscow, a city I love, suffered the same fate as London.

By this time, it was clear to me, though not to them, that the rascals were on an inadvertent voyage around the world. So, at the end of their Russian adventure, it only made sense that they should continue eastward.

Thus, in Chasing the Phoenix, their newest adventure, the melancholic Darger and the dog of action Surplus find themselves conquering China. Literally, I mean. With armies and such.

Beyond the last page of that novel, there are more discoveries to come. Surplus has to return to the Demesne of Western Vermont to confront his origins. He was, after all, a product of the gene-mills of Winooski, and someone there had reasons for creating him. Darger has to return to the slums of Mayfair to learn the fate of his own mentor, and to see what has become of London during his long absence.

Here I will share with you a secret: Darger and Surplus are not the random factors that they would seem to be. They are catalysts. Their adventures are, in ways both large and small, changing the world. Should they ever reach London—and if they do, this will not be their final adventure, but it will be the last one I record—they will find the world transformed. The age they were born into, with all its glories and limitations, will be over.

They will see the new age in its infancy. But they will never know it was their doing.

Preorder Chasing the Phoenix today:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s

Follow Michael Swanwick on Twitter at @MichaelSwanwick, or visit him online.