Vacuum Flowers (1987) by Michael Swanwick

Don't miss out on other works by Michael Swanwick:
Stations of the Tide (1991) Book Review
Available works by Michael Swanwick


Set in the medium-term future in what is now a widely colonised Solar System, Vacuum Flowers envisions a society where the recorded minds of the deceased can be commoditised and sold for entertainment purposes. The novel explores core assumptions of what it means to be human, particularly the point at which advances in neural technology start to undermine fixed notions of personhood.

The mind of deceased Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark – the corporate property of Deutsche Nakasone – is tested on Eucrasia Walsh who earns a living lending her mind/body to private corporations, a sort of guinea pig.  Something goes wrong and Rebel wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there and only a faint memory of her past person. Instinct tells her to escape and with Deutsche Nakasone in pursuit, she begins a journey across the Solar System’s many different habitats, trying to uncover her own as well as Eucrasia’s past, all the while threatened by a dangerous, expansionist hive-mind known as the Comprise.

The idea that minds or ‘wetware’ (the term adopted in the novel) can be digitised and commoditised is an archetypical cyberpunk trope, one that Pat Cadigan grappled with in Mindplayers (1987), published the same year. And where it is Jerry in Mindplayers who takes the technology to its extreme, constantly rebooting his mind, shattering any notion of fixed personhood in the process, in Vacuum Flowers it is the character of Wyeth who as a composite of four different wetwares represents the potential monstrous effects of brain programming, his mind trapped in a hall of mirrors.

While the development of the AI based hivemind, the Comprise has fast-forwarded human knowledge, not least in physics, displaying all the hallmark characteristics of a technological singularity in the making, it is also presented as a potential danger to humanity. Now a necessary evil, it started out as a seemingly innocent attempt to maintain cohesiveness in a burgeoning civilisation stretched across space. By the same token, symbolically at least, the virulent growth of vacuum flowers, bioengineered weed that literally grows in the vacuum of space and is constantly in need of weeding, also reveals a pessimistic view of  human civilisation, one that is on the cusp of spinning out of control, close to falling victim to its own creations. Much like Rudy Rucker’s portrayal of humanity in the Ware tetralogy (1982-2000), Swanwick is basically saying that humanity’s path to progress is imperilled by human haphazardness and misguidedness.

Vacuum Flowers anticipates the trope of a splintering humanity that has since come to characterise much postmodern space opera. 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...”, a train of thought that recalls Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985). It is early days and many of the experiments in the Solar System still have a whiff of idealism and utopian euphoria about them, whether it is People’s Mars, a collectivist state based on ancient Sparta, or the bucolic Dyson settlements in the Oort Cloud. Initial euphoria and idealism, a neoliberal fantasy world of space exploration, also shaped the narrative arc of Kim Stanley Ronbinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-1996).