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1986 - Year in SF&F: December



THE WONDER TIMELINE: SF&F RETROSPECTIVE
Read other issues here

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Michael Swanwick
"Vacuum Flowers" (nv)

© 1986, IASFM, Dec-Mar
Ace Books, 1987
--novel : 1988 Locus/7
--/ third place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

There’s a lot of ways you could label Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick: cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, pre-transhuman, post-posthuman … and all those other silly labels pretentious science fiction reviewers and nit-picking analysts have been sticking on various books since the genre began to be taken -- or took itself -- too seriously.

But I have a better label for it. One I think says a lot more about this delightful book than any pre- or post- definition anyone could give it.

Sure, Vacuum Flowers does neatly fit into the cyberpunky domain (pre- or post- or whatever): set in an accessible where earth has been overrun by The Comprise, a voracious digital hive-mind, and the remaining free-will humans has escaped out into the solar system. The protagonist, Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark, begins the story like all good protagonists, as the subject of shadowy forces out to get something she possesses – and, naturally, what she isn’t exactly what she possesses.

But what makes Swanwick’s novel so wonderfully unique is that Rebel isn’t really Rebel. Originally a restless personality tester, someone who tries on artificial identities, she did the unthinkable and found a perfect one for her – Rebel’s – and stole it. See, in the post/pre (whatever) world of Vacuum Flowers personalities, memories, abilities, are as changeable as putting on, or taking off, make-up. In fact, Swanwick is credited by many as being one of the first creators of wetware, the idea of ‘painting on’ software to do just that.

And a lot of painting goes in Vacuum Flowers, but to Swanwick’s credit he takes this esoteric and possibly-confusing concept and makes it deceptively easy to understand, the book completely readable and totally enjoyable.

Just like the best of Alfred Bester, Swanwick is also deliciously and dazzling inventive, each page sparkling with memorable details and dazzling inventiveness: a blindly-focused quasi-communistic society dedicated to terraforming Mars, a renegade ‘mob boss’ who entertains himself by twisting the minds of his prisoner/guests, a multiple-personality ‘hero’ who has just the right mind for pretty much any job … Swanwick coolly and seductively brings the reader into Rebel’s kaleidoscopically fantastic, yet completely real-feeling world.

Yep, there are a lot of labels that could be tossed at Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers: post-this, post-that, transhuman, posthuman, cyberpunk ... whatever. The best label, though, and one that fits the novel so very well is one that every writer wants to get: A Really Good Book.


Art copyright: Grant Morrison (click to enlarge)

Review by author M. Christian
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Philip C. Jennings
"Teddy Bug and the Hot Purple Snowball"
© Far Frontiers, Dec 1986
The Bug Life Chronicles, 1989
--/ fourth place space sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ style award


This story deserves a better exposure... wonderful romp through the Solar System inside a prisoner's mind, transplanted into a Charles Stross Lobster-like or Bruce Sterling's Shizmatrix robotic environment: clean, precise prose with good adventure plot. Reminds me of the classic "Delilah and the Space Rigger" by Heinlein. Minds transplanted into space mining robots... can perhaps be scifi subgenre of its own! So many stories are using this theme. Robert Sheckley, Alfred Bester - the list goes on. But this is an extremely entertaining short example.

----------------------------------------------

Roger McBride Allen
Winged Mysteries—The Soviet Shuttles

© Far Frontiers, Dec 1986
--/ cool article
--/ rare find

This is the most entertaining and interesting account of America's groping in the dark about the current (in 1986) Soviet space shuttle technology (as Roger McBride Allen points out "They steal nothing but the best technology") Well, the shuttles are no longer a mystery, of course, and we know how the whole shuttle era ended (see the detailed account in this DRB article: Rare Photos of the Russian "Buran" Space Program) - but this is very rare, paranoid take on the subject, and thoroughly enjoyable.

----------------------------------------------



Roger McBride Allen
"Young As You Feel"

© Far Frontiers, Dec 1986
--/ cool "mad scientist" sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ rare find

The hilarious opening of that extremely rare story had me laughing, as it describes a two-year old kid "attacking" the parents in the most innocent way - the mess, the bother, the overall so-familiar situation... What develops next, is one of the more entertaining "mad scientist" plots in recent SF. Mind you, they don't write like that any more - this would be perfectly at home in the 1940s Astounding or "Thrilling Wonder" pulp: a youthfulness plague and "responsibility" cure. Good stuff, enjoyable.

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