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Two of the Most Entertaining SF Novels from the 1980s




Most inventive, flamboyant science fiction to see the light of day - published some 25 years ago

Fall in love again with the no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat science fiction, featuring inexhaustible flow of ideas, rich language, and skillfully-plotted adventure. Even though the following two novels were published back in the 1980s, they are highly recommended for those who can not stand run-of-the-mill bland SF fare and wants to feel excitement about reading SF again.

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



Tim Powers
"The Anubis Gates" (nv)

© 1983, Ace Books
- novel : 1984 Philip K. Dick award W
- fantasy novel : 1984 Locus/2
- novel : 1984 SF Chronicle award W
- novel : 1986 British SF award
- 1987 Apollo award W
- fantasy novel (before 1990) : 1998 Locus All-Time Poll/14
- fantasy book : 2001 Geffen award W
--/ FIRST place time sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ awesome scale

There’s a scene in The Anubis Gates that’s stayed with me ever since I first read it, some twenty or so years ago: our hero, Brendan Doyle, a professor at California State University Fullerton (one of my old alma maters, by the way), has found himself magically transported back to London in 1810.

Doyle, fascinated by a time he’s only read about, but also devastated that he’s trapped forever in the past, is walking through a street market when he hears someone whistling a tune, a song he suddenly realizes he knows.

The tune? “Yesterday” by the Beatles.

For me, that’s a special moment of brilliance in a novel packed full of all kinds of brilliances: a shivering little touch of perfect story-telling. One of the things I think is particularly excellent about the book is the way that Powers sort of restrains himself in his writing. Put it this way, if someone else were to write The Anubis Gates, especially these days, they’d have a tendency to make the book’s language too closely mirror the style and language of the time. But what Tim Powers does in The Anubis Gates is, instead, get to the basic – and fantastic – nature of a book from that time without resorting to overly-elaborate tricks.

The story-telling language in The Anubis Gates is the best kind of writing, smooth and seamless – infinitely readable and totally enjoyable.

But back to what makes The Anubis Gates so special. Like I said, what Powers has done is create an marvelously enjoyable book filled with the characters and details that feel like they’ve come from every Penny Dreadful and broadsheet from the 1800s: Horrabin, the nightmare clown and king of the London beggars; Jacky, the beggar who is actually the daughter of nobility on a quest for revenge; Amenophis Fikee, magician and leader of a gypsy clan cursed to become the body-thief Dog-Faced Joe, and so much more.

But The Anubis Gates is not just a playground for the author’s vivid imagination, for many real literary and historical celebrities also walk across the stage: Byron, publisher John Murray and many others. The world Powers creates – or just the past of the real world he plays in -- feels vivid, real, and always enjoyable.

In the end, the Anubis Gates remains a classically stylish and brightly imaginative novel told in a delightfully elegant way – an enjoyable read that feels timeless, which is quite an accomplishment for a book about time and travel.


Art copyright: Sam VanOlffen

Review by author M. Christian
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COMMENTS:

7 Comments:

Blogger krazmo said...

Thanks for bringing a little attention to these two wonderful novels. I dearly love just about everything that Tim Powers has written, but I need to find more by Michael Swanwick.

6:35 PM  
Blogger TomF said...

Swanwick's 'Stations of the Tide' is one that left a mark on me. Has a similar post/pre-cyberpunky mix to it, but set mainly on a lush, tech-deprived planet. Nice twist, florid sexy hallucinogenic prose and some ingenious ideas. Worked for me as a 15-yr-old anyway (and then again as a 30-yr-old ;)). Not always that accessible I guess, but it's worth charging into its mutating undergrowth.

9:14 AM  
Blogger kidgeezer said...

Highly recommend anything by Swanwick. "Stations of The Tide" is terrific and is set in the same scenario/universe as "Vacuum Flowers" with a hostile Earth and non-subsumed humanity widely dispersing.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Heartily agree... Swanwick adds a magical touch to every story he writes. Great stuff all-around.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Liz said...

I love it all, thank you for the inspiration.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I read 'The Anubis Gates' recently and while it's a very good book and worth reading for the characters alone I didn't find it quite as wonderful as you did.

While it starts off well the author can't quite handle all the elements he's introduced so the story does wander around a bit before the end. Tim Powers is certainly a good writer, but I didn't feel that he was a particulaly good storyteller - and I felt the same about the other book of his I read, The Drawing of the Dark.

I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of his novels since he is a good writer but he's a second tier author for me - enjoyable to read but lacking that x-factor that makes a really cracking book.

I'd offer an alternative suggestion for an Entertaining 80s Novel:

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold.

It had me grinning most of the way through so it's definitely entertaining.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Vacuum Flowers when it was serialized in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine back in the '80's. It was so unique that I bought a used hardback of the novel several years ago. Swanwick never seems to bother with trivial details like explaining the nuances of his future society. Yet somehow you can figure it out.I would say this would make one humdinger of a movie but Hollywood would only dumb it down.

5:55 PM  

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