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Vacuum Flowers (et al)
by Michael Swanwick
(Ace, US$6, 256 pages; 1987, 1997 reprint. ISBN: 0441858767)

Rating: "A" -- energetic, inventive space opera. Highly recommended.

Vacuum Flowers is a grand tour of the inhabited Solar System, set in a medium-term future. The book opens in Eros Kluster, one of many asteroid-based settlements that form the bulk of Human space, after all of humanity on Earth was absorbed into the Comprise, a world-wide AI- and net-mediated group-mind. The Klusters are frontier-capitalist polities, more or less, with advanced biotech and neuro-engineering -- most people spend their workday wetware-programmed by their employer, a (+/-) reversible process. There is, umm, 'potential for abuse', and Swanwick has fun exploring the consequences of this technology. For example, a police raid wouldn't require many police -- temp-deputies could be imprinted on the spot...

People's Mars, an unappealing collectivist state based on classical Sparta, is nonetheless making good progress terraforming Mars. The cislunar settlements, a no-man's-land between Humanity and the Comprise, are the dark anarchic Mean Streets. And the remote Dyson settlements in the Oort are bucolic biophile semi-utopias, offstage. Swanwick notes that he "tried to display a range of plausible governmental systems throughout the System, all of them flawed the way that governments are in the real world..." Nicely done, one of the highlights of Vacuum Flowers.

Oh, and the Flowers are pretty little plants, engineered to live in the vacuum and eat garbage, that have become a weedy nuisance -- another nice touch. Swanwick is, surprisingly, one of the few SF authors who've borrowed Freeman Dyson's remarkable biotech space-settlement ideas. Dyson is an extraordinarily inventive and graceful scientist-writer, and I seldom miss a chance to recommend his books -- see www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman for a bit of Dyson info.

This was Swanwick's second novel, and first really successful one. Despite some rough spots -- notably, the cyberpunkish opening -- Vacuum Flowers remains an exemplary modern space-opera, one of the best in the extraordinary reinvention of my favorite subgenre during the past two decades. I've now read VF three times (1987, 1993, and 2000), and I expect to enjoy it again in 2007 or so. Highly recommended.

Works that carry on VF's sfnal dialog include Ken MacLeod's Cassini Division (etc.; reviewed by Keith Brooke) -- for imaginative, non-obvious Solar economies and politics, and for biophilia-in-space; Wil McCarthy's Bloom -- for another aggressive, weird post-human Earth; and many more. This is one of my favorite parts of following SF: watching talented writers toss Neat Ideas back and forth. Benford has written about this dialog at some length, and I'd give a cite if I could find it....

Swanwick's other SF/F efforts also feature careful world-building, thoughtful searches for non-obvious consequences of technological change, and an increasingly distinctive literary style. His works similar to VF include the early, vigorous and clever "Ginungagap" (1980), and the sombre, scary and underrated short novel Griffin's Egg (1991, 2000 reprint in Moon Dogs, NESFA), both of which repay rereading.

OK, now that I've started -- I found his first novel, In the Drift (1984), 'what-if Three Mile Island had been really bad?', OK but unremarkable. Stations of the Tide (1991), a far-future Tempest retelling (with sea-changes!) won him a well-deserved Nebula. I thought it was the best book of 1991. On second reading (1998), I found it a bit murky and florid, but still excellent. Note that Stations appears to be set in VF's future. And the bureaucrat looks like Gene Wolfe!

The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1994), set in a hard-edged industrial Faerie, might be his best novel so far. Like many, I found his reworking of Jack Faust (1997) disappointing, but I'll give it another shot in 2003 or so. Next up is a time travel/dinosaur novel! -- I presume the recent dino shorts in Asimov's are previews. No publication date yet.

Swanwick, a prolific short-story writer, has several collections: Gravity's Angels (1991) and A Geography of Unknown Lands (1997, out of print), both with lots of Good Stuff -- and four(!) new collections are forthcoming -- one, Moondogs, is now out:
www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Swanwick.htm

Still to come are Tales Of Old Earth; Cigar-Box Faust, a collection of short-shorts; and Puck Aleshire's Abecedary, a chapbook.

Most of his recent shorts are first published in Asimov's, another reason to subscribe. Swanwick's short fiction is not always to my taste, but always worth reading -- see the online-fiction sampler below. I'm not going to play 'what's my favorite Swanwick story?' right now, but don't let that dissuade you....

In VF Swanwick acknowledges financial support from the 'MC Porter Endowment for the Arts', which led Tom Easton to praise said Endowment in his Analog review. Swanwick abashedly wrote back that he was being cute in thanking his patient wife, Marianne Porter, for carrying her notoriously slow-writing spouse through his lean early years. "Write faster, Swanwick," she said (he said). Amen.

Links:

There are two good interviews of MS online, both of which are required reading for Swanwick fans:

-- and here's an excerpt from the 1998 Locus interview:

I couldn't find a dedicated Swanwick site -- who knows, maybe this could be the start of one. In the meanwhile, basics are available at:

If you know of a good Swanwick link that isn't here, please send it! I'd be willing to provide content for a Swanwick website and help to keep it updated, but I'm not in a position to start one from scratch.

Short fiction online:

Note: all books mentioned are in print (in US and/or UK), unless otherwise noted.


Review by Peter D Tillman; More of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Amazon.com. Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more!

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© Peter D Tillman 15 April 2000