Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: Vacuum Flowers By Michael Swanwick and The Anubis Gates By Tim Powers

Here's another review of classic science fiction novels for Dark Roasted Blend:

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.

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 Anubs 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.

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