Guest Post by Misha Burnett: Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick

Monday , 8, August 2016 4 Comments

A Match Made In Space: Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers

Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers is has just been re-issued on Kindle by Open Road Media Sci & Fantasy Group. Open Road seems to be in the business of re-issuing out of print classics of genre fiction—a glance at the sample chapter from some of their other titles gives me the impression that they are decently edited and formatted editions. So here’s hoping.

It was originally published in 1987 by Ace, part of the Random Penguin group. At that time “cyberpunk” was the hot buzzword, so that’s how it got labeled. “Literary Space Romance” might be a better description. It’s Appendix X all the way, that’s for sure.

It’s hard to separate the setting from the story. We are far in the future, and the solar system has been extensively colonized. Technology exists to create a direct interface between human brains and computers. In the outer solar system this has led to an art of mental programming, personalities are written like software and people can become whomever they want to be.

On Earth this technology has created a single vast personality—billions of humans and computers linked into one group mind. Only the instability caused by the limitations of speed-of-light communication kept this mind from spreading off the planet. The struggle continues, however, with the vast entity known as Earth waging a subtle cold war against the remaining humans through politics and economics.

All of this background is delivered quickly and painlessly through the story of Rebel and Wyeth. Rebel is a recorded personality who has outlived her host body. She arrived from the distant Oort Cloud colonies as a corpse in a pod with a failed life support system. At her destination, however, doctors were able to make a record of her personality from the dead brain and imprint it on a living volunteer.

Once Rebel is in control her first action is to destroy the programming unit that holds her host body’s old personality and then run from the hospital. She has no idea why she is doing it, but is confident that some part of her has a good reason.

Wyeth is an experimental personality—or, rather four of them. His mental structure is based on the Australian Aboriginal archetypes of Leader, Warrior, Mystic, and Clown. The body that Rebel is currently wearing is the programmer who helped Wyeth to set up his own personality structure. Rebel is able to access some of her body’s old memories and finds Wyeth.

This takes “meet cute” to a whole new level.

When we first meet Wyeth he’s working as a day laborer, scraping parasitic growths called “vacuum flowers” from the outside of a deep space habitat. Before long he gets a new job, though, as head of security for an ambitious project to move a massive structure through the solar system. To accomplish this, the owners of the structure have hired a group of technicians from Earth to run the ultra-high tech reactionless drive used, and then hired Wyeth to watch over Earth for treachery.

There is a lot going on in this book. The relationship between Rebel and Wyeth is, perhaps, the main story, but it takes place against a rich backdrop of interplanetary intrigue. The characters are rich and real and the world-building is first rate. This is “what-if” science fiction as its finest.

Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.

4 Comments
  • Kenny Cross says:

    My first encounters with Michael Swanwick were STATIONS OF THE TIDE & THE IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER. It’s been 20 years since I read Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Alright I’m in.

    Another great review.

  • Tom says:

    Swanwick is the good stuff, though it’s been a while since I read any. If you like Vacuum Flowers, give Schismatrix (Bruce Sterling) a try.

    • I LOVE Schismatrix, and I actually read them both at about the same time. I may try to tackle it in a review, but it’s a very difficult book to boil down to a few hundred words.

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