Looking at Michael Swanwick’s oeuvre, one sees an interesting arc. Opening in territory of a relatively realist nature (In the Drift), wandering for a time through science fantasy (almost magic realist) land (Stations of the Tide, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and The Dragons of Babel), before arriving in decidedly, fantastically non-realist territory (anything related to Darger and Surplus), the rocket of Swanwick’s imagination counting down, taking off and exploding is visible. Vacuum Flowers, Swanwick’s second novel published in 1987, should be considered ignition.
Vacuum Flowers opens on a tense chapter drawn straight from Cyberpunk 101. Rebel Mercedes Mudlark (yes, her real name) awakens in an unfamiliar body, tied down in a hospital bed. Escaping with some neural-transmitter slight of hand, she meets a mysterious man disguised in wetware, who takes her to the home of a mysterious woman who informs Rebel she is sharing the strange body with its original owner, Eucrasia Walsh, and that the corporation funding the hospital Deutsche Nakasone wants both of them back, and badly. Rebel going on the run, she tries to sort out her and Eucrasia’s situation while evading capture. Is there anywhere in the solar system she can get help, however?
While there appears a driving force behind the plot in that summary, it is perfunctory between the covers. Vacuum Flowers is more a tour of our futuristic, inhabited solar system (aka tour of Michael Swanwick’s imagination) than it is a gripping hunt and chase narrative. The coproation’s efforts to recapture Rebel propelling her to constantly find new sanctuary, the majority of time spent in the novel is exploring said sanctuaries. From the gravity-free asteroid modules to the surface of Mars, Dyson spheres in the Oort to beyond, the environments, polities, and lifestyles she encounters are anything but vanilla Earth.
And this is where the novel really shines; Swanwick accomplishes the unreal feeling of space without resorting to the dry exposition of hard sf. Elastic, colorful, variegated—these are the words I would use to describe the settings, cultures, and technologies Rebel encounters on her interstellar tour. You want post-human sensawunda, Swanwick delivers a rolling rollercoaster of imagination.
In the end, Vaccum Flowers is a sophomore novel reminiscent of another, perhaps overly ambitious, second novel: Ian McDonald’s Out on Blue Six. (Pot-smoking raccoons, I mean...) An explosion of partially grounded imagination, the lack of balance between plot and settings skews the novel toward worldbuilding, which detracts, to some degree, from its underlying import to examine the meaning of sentience and autonomy in a solar system whose technology has granulated the classic understanding of individuality (i.e. classic cyberpunk). Fun reading more than purposeful reading, the novel does climax in personal fashion, but could have had more impact were the details of setting planed tighter to the main character and her plight. Another way of putting this is, the book feels more like a tour of Swanwick’s rich-rich imagination than rounded, focused story. 3… 2… 1…