“The Very Pulse of the Machine” is the second story that I’ve read by Michael Swanwick. The first was his novella, Griffin’s Egg, which is a very fine story about an engineered pathogen that transforms people’s minds on a moon base. It’s a very intense and fascinating story. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” is no less a story, and very good in its own right!
Taking its title from William Wordsworth’s “She Was a Phantom of Delight,” it’s about Martha Kivelsen, one member of a two woman team exploring the surface of Io. Her lander companion, Juliet Burton, dies in an accident, but “she” continues to talk to Martha as she trudges along the dangerous surface of the moon back to the lander, hoping to reunite with Jacob Hols and the orbiter. Apparently, Io is an intelligent “machine” that was artificially created by “Mobile. Intelligent. Organic. Life.” (328). It accesses Burton’s memories of poetry and experience, and uses this in its attempts to communicate with Kivelsen.
I wonder if his choice to make the two planetary explorers female was done deliberately and if so, for what purpose? Kivelsen describes herself as also shooting for second place. She’s always on the crew, but never the commander. However, she misses her many accomplishments like being a space explorer and competing in the Olympics. Though, she could represent women in general as always falling short of first place in the male hegemony. This is made more poignant by her female commander’s death even before the story begins. Her choice at the end of the story is foolhardy, but it gives her power over her destiny as well as that of Burton’s.
Other themes explored in the story include the nature of identity and the encoding of self in a machine thereby becoming the “deus ex machina.” Also, Swanwick’s creative use of electrical charge and the surfur dioxide composition of the surface is particularly inventive.
I found the story in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 12, but it can also be found in Swanwick’s Tales of Old Earth. Rush out and read this story!