The Iron Dragons Daughter Critical Essays

Michael Swanwick


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The opening of The Iron Dragons Daughter conveys an atmosphere reminiscent of Charles Dickens work, with its exploited children and “dark, Satanic mills.” The book is replete with references to other works of the fantastic, drawn from all eras. For example, Dr. Nemesis, Janes alchemy professor, was a student of the unfortunate Friar Bungay, the hero of the Renaissance play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, in which an oracular brass head is brought to life. On another occasion, Jane receives a memo from the Office of Penitence and Truth, a title of the torturers guild in Gene Wolfes Book of the New Sun sequence (1980-1983). There are also passing references to Ys (setting for a fantasy by Poul Anderson), Lyonesse (Jack Vance), and a host of other places drawn from modern fantasy and traditional folklore.

Edward James defines the science-fiction genre of cyberpunk as a combination of “cyber,” from cybernetics, the study of systems in machines and animals, and “punk,” from 1970’s rock terminology referring to aggressive, alienated, antiestablishment youth. The Iron Dragons Daughter has been called “fairypunk”: It takes many elements of traditional fantasy and fuses them with cyberpunk sensibilities and some of the motifs and concerns of urban fantasy. It shares with cyberpunk the gritty, industrial, urban settings; an aggressive pop-fiction sexuality; and a concern with the brand-name details of imaginary technological systems. In this case, the latter is a system of magic, consistent within its own frame of reference, that makes playful use of alchemical, hermetic, tantric, kabbalistic, and other esoteric systems, as well as every type of fairy lore imaginable. The whole is spiced with references to drugs and technology, imaginatively integrated with the fierce, cold elves of medieval legend.