Michael Swanwick has said that he wants his writing to be “built to last.” Although his dense prose and kaleidoscopic imagination can make for a confusing first reading, his novels are richly enjoyable to reread. One appreciates how skillfully Swanwick integrates a fast-moving, involving narrative with evocative descriptions of imagined environments. Haunting images in Vacuum Flowers include the three-dimensional visualizations of human personalities that Rebel manipulates, the ramshackle homes of space residents living on the fringes of society, and the apelike humans experimentally produced by the Comprise. His worlds are both strangely exotic and jarringly realistic.
Interwoven with evocative details are explorations of a key issue: the desirability of individual identity. Members of the Comprise have sacrificed individuality to exist as one combined personality, Martians retain individual identity but are programmed to subordinate all personal interests to work for their society, and people in the space colonies individually seek to alter their identities by undergoing illegal surgery or purchasing a marketed persona. The common thread seems to be a desire to escape from personal identity, but one could also speak of a desire to choose one’s identity. That is Rebel’s situation. She seeks to maintain the identity she chose and resist the identity she was born with.
A related issue is the balance between working for individual goals and working for collective goals. Wyeth says that he is working to preserve individual identity, yet in his determination to stay near Earth and keep fighting for humanity rather than seeking a happier future with Rebel, he reveals his own commitment to collective, not individual, ambitions. The Martians insist that their rigid programming represents the best way to realize personal aspirations.
Swanwick apparently sides with the individual, as represented by the fiercely independent Rebel and the image of vacuum flowers, beautiful, fragile creatures that keep growing despite efforts to eradicate them. They are an obvious metaphor for his space colonists. Human individuals will always survive, Swanwick seems to say, no matter what possibilities are created by advanced science. Thus, despite nightmarish moments, Vacuum Flowers emerges as an optimistic vision of humanity’s future.
Swanwick’s career has shown admirable variety, including a post-holocaust novel, In the Drift (1984); an exercise in hard science world building, Stations of the Tide (1991); and a fantasy, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1994). Few writers are so consistently challenging and consistently rewarding.