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by Stephen Palmer

(Cosmos Books; £16, 348 pages, paperback; October 1 2002.)

Chaos descends on the communities of Zaïdmouth cover scanwhen the isolated, extremist Shrines of the Green Man and of the Sea attempt to wrest control from the matriarchal hegemony. The result is a flower crash, a dramatic collapse of the biomechanical environment that supports Zaïdmouth's culture. With the extinction of thousands of species and the spread of an oppressive monoculture threatened, it falls to Manserphine, cleric of the Shrine of Our Sister Crone and the Interpreter for Zaïdmouth's virtual forum, the Garden, to resolve Zaïdmouth's social issues in the interests of all.

Flowercrash is another stand-alone novel from Stephen Palmer, but again we find ourselves in familiar territory. A hybrid of technology and the natural environment; a struggle between humanist and mechanistic ideologies; and the interplay of mind, body and morality, examined here as in Palmer's two Kray novels primarily from a feminist perspective. Ecological issues are clearly back on the agenda, but Flowercrash is not the disaster novel that Memory Seed and Glass were. Here the immediate threat is not that Zaïdmouth might be wiped from the face of the earth, but rather that it might fall under the subjugation of a dictatorial sub-section of its populace, that sub-section's limited viewpoint being mirrored in the environment it would control. The ecological impact of such a paradigm shift must come second; the first and foremost consideration here, it would seem, is the political impact.

At the heart of this story is the question of whether or not there is room in the Garden for the Sea-Clerics and Green Man separatists. Should the Garden give a political voice to Zaïdmouth's most extreme monomaniacal elements, or should it exclude parts of the community from decision-making processes? Not an easily answered question, and I think Palmer's refusal to take this situation at face value is commendable. Other readers may disagree with his solution, but that's politics for you.

I feel I should mention at this point that Flowercrash contains super-powered electronic intelligences, too, although this time we have some on both sides. Throughout the book a trio of network entities do ideological battle, with Zaïdmouth's future at stake, through the artificial networks and in concert with like-minded humans. Baigurgône, believing that a state of pure, electronic mind is the key to power, soon falls in with the clerics of the Shrine of the Green Man, and in particular the brutal Nuïy, who similarly believe in divorcing their intellects absolutely from their emotions. Zoahnône, who wants all network entities to be tied to gynoid bodies, befriends Manserphine and her friends at the Determinate Inn, all thoroughly emotional people looking to reform a repressed society. With these super-AIs influencing events, it'd be hard to avoid, well, deus ex machina, so it's probably for the best that they're mostly sidelined in favour of the human protagonists.

As befits a book that advocates the power of emotion, Flowercrash is jam-packed with powerful scenes, both uplifting and shocking (and frequently within the same chapter). It's a credit to Palmer's writing that his characters demand such investment from the reader, and with some richly peculiar scenery to boot Flowercrash makes for very satisfying reading. Hopefully more is to come.

Review by John Toon.

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