Only his second novel, but what a difference in quality compared to In the Drift. Like Sterling’s Schismatrix this feels like a progenitor of all those transhuman/posthuman elements that became so prevalent later on in SF. It’s a tour of a future solar system that has the same idea density and complexity like e.g. the more recent Accelerando by Charles Stross. The core premise of the novel is the complete reprogrammability of the human mind, a powerful concept that isn’t easily handled and thus often avoided, even in more recent fiction. Swanwick explores this from various directions, a borglike entity that controls Earth, a Mars-commune that programs its citizen do be brave and happy worker drones and more.
The human mind has become just as mutable as fashion. Swanwick’s novel shows a future out of control, having lost its last fixed or at least slow moving attractor. If free will and identity are easily editable they become worthless, and while the Comprise, the borglike entity on Earth, seems like the most unpleasant outcome of this future, it makes sense in a world where identity and self has become an endlessly interchangeable commodity. The plot hook of the book is about another alternative, an updated version of the human mind, personalities that revert despite every reprogramming to their normal state. In consequence making the human mind immutable again.
This is my kind of book, taking an idea and running as far as possible with it. Admittedly this happens (a bit) at the expense of characterization and atmosphere, but nothing can beat the raw power of the ideas exhibited here.