Vacuum Flowers – Michael Swanwick (1987)
‘Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark is hot property. The body she awakes in isn’t her own: her mind is unique; the agency owning her is deadly. If she stays in the Medical Centre, she has No Future.
So she does what anybody sane would do – she escapes.
And in the sprawling, mad civilisations of the future, she’s in for a very interesting time indeed. If she survives.’
Blurb from the 1989 Legend paperback edition.
The basic pursuit scenario is either that the protagonist is in search of something or someone, the discovery of which is of vital importance to the outcome of the story, or else the protagonist is the pursued and his or her capture, or that of whatever he or she possesses, is of vital importance.
In ‘Vacuum Flowers’ – the title refers both to the genetically engineered blue flowers which grow in vacuum on the surface of asteroids and to the many societies which have flowered in various exotic habitats within the Solar System – the element sought is the persona of Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark. Personas (or personae) are wetware programmes with which users can augment, supplement or overlay their personality. Persona bums (such as Eucrasia Walsh) are hired to test the personas before they go on the market, but in this case Eucrasia liked her persona so much that she ran off with the original copy still in control of her mind.
The Deutsche Nakasone Corporation want the persona back all costs while a rival bidder, fronted by an avatar called Snow, also gets in on the act.
Rebel escapes again and again, while in the meantime undergoing personality disorders because of the battle going on in her mind between the new Rebel personality and the repressed Eucrasia.
Meanwhile, we discover that Earth has been subsumed by the Comprise, a gestalt human cyborg organism, ‘comprised’ of billions of individual human units forming a single consciousness.
The Comprise have existed in an uneasy truce with the rest of Humanity since the time they attempted to absorb them into the cyborg collective. As it transpired the Comprise cannot sustain communication with Earth over distances beyond the Moon’s orbit and their attempts to create Comprise off-shoots have failed, so the Comprise are effectively confined to Earth.
Rebel teams up with Wyeth, a tetrad; his mind divided into the four separate aspects of Warrior, Leader, Mystic and Clown, and their journey, attempting to evade both the assassins of Nakasone and the offers from Snow, takes us on a fabulous journey through the Solar System in which Swanwick throws out inventive wonders, marvels and biological impossibilities seemingly effortlessly.
They visit Deimos where for a brief time they are employed by ‘People’s Mars’, a socialist collective who are fanatically dedicated to their long-term plan of terraforming the Red Planet, and though a cheerless bunch are meticulously efficient and frugal.
The fines from the mining of Deimos, for instance, are ejected into areosynchronous orbit to create a reflective cloud which focuses additional sunlight on the planet.
The pace is relentless and Swanwick’s style is so full of poetic if sometimes bewildering terms, it becomes redolent of Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ or Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’.
Wonders abound and there is a restless energy which permeates the book urging the reader and the heroine on.
The central figure, Rebel, eventually comes to terms with the part of her which is Eucrasia and finally learns the nature of her own self.
Swanwick is a very individual writer. Although employing elements of cyberpunk and hard scientific premises he extrapolates some elements to the heights of the fantastic.
When Wyeth is contracted to oversee the transfer of ‘tank slums’ and its population of workers to Deimos, a habitat is created by the Comprise within a geodesic sphere based around a giant free-floating orchid within whose branches the workers create small villages and communities. The Comprise (their exponentially heightened intelligence putting their science centuries beyond Man’s) have created a transit ring which essentially shifts space itself from one point to another, and the entire sphere, occupants, orchid and all are packed up and put through and sent to Mars.
It’s also a love story since Wyeth, who knew Eucrasia before she became Rebel (it was Eucrasia who split Wyeth’s head into four separate divisions) falls in love with Eucrasia’s new self and she with him, despite her misgivings.
Although fast-paced and light-hearted in tone there is a depth and a sophistication in the intricate background detail which raises this well above the norm.