Paul Cornell’s novella Rosebud was a book which I ended up needing to read twice. One reason for this is the story’s intentionally surreal setup: there is an element of deliberate absurdity to the world and characters that Cornell creates, and while this absurdity does help Cornell explore his novella’s themes, I also think that it can risk obscuring some of the book’s more interesting subjects.
The plot of Rosebud follows a group of five digitized intelligences residing within the computer of the Rosebud—a one-millimeter-wide spacecraft harvesting dust from Saturn’s rings. Working on behalf of a totalitarian corporation called the Solar Company, the main character of Rosebud is Haunt, an artificial intelligence originally created as a non-player character in a now long-forgotten video game. Along with Haunt, the simulated spaces of the Rosebud’s computers are also populated by Diana, a formerly human woman described as “some sort of science aristocrat,” a cybernetic hive mind called Quin who represents themselves via the digital avatar of a swarm of insects, a being called “Huge if True” who takes the form (bizarrely) of a giant ball of human hands, and a sentient party balloon named Bob who has a habit of making offensively derogatory comments about his fellow crewmates at regularly scheduled intervals.
Together, all five of these characters have spent the last three hundred years crewing the Rosebud, hoping that their work altering the paths of dust particles on behalf of the Solar Company will one day grant them the social status and the corporate goodwill required to gain personhood.
As the book opens, however, everyone is unexpectedly summoned into the Rosebud’s control center (a virtual area made to resemble a 1990s apartment filled with beanbag chairs, lava lamps, and a “poster of someone called Winona Ryder”). The Rosebud’s automated systems have detected a speck of dust amongst Saturn’s rings unlike any other, a perfectly spherical object whose total lack of any identifying corporate logo all but proves its alien origins. Eager for the acclaim and recognition that the Solar Company will surely grant them if they secure the first conclusive proof of alien life, the crew briefly debates opening fire on this object, before instead choosing to make first contact with it (Diana explains to her crewmates that their ship doesn’t actually have any weapons, and therefore that they don’t really have any other choice in this matter).
Instead, the characters all download their minds into a collection of five 3D-printed bodies and trade their diverse virtual avatars for an equally surreal collection of physical forms, all of which exist on the same microscopic scale as their one-millimeter spaceship. While Diana assumes the body of a woman resembling her digital avatar, Quin dons the form of a giant wasp; Bob becomes an anthropomorphic tiger, Huge If True a robotic recreation of the painter Bob Ross, and Haunt an exact replica of Dracula as portrayed by the actor Christopher Lee.
In these new bodies all five characters depart their ship, intending to facilitate humanity’s first contact with an alien intelligence.
Yet this surreal imagery is only a prelude to the story that follows. No sooner have the microscopic crew entered a passage that opens for them on the alien sphere’s surface than they are all afflicted with a surge of déjà vu so intense as almost to trigger nausea. Each individual suddenly finds that they have contrasting memories of the events of the last few hours, with their emergency backup memories in the Rosebud’s processors no longer matching with their lived experiences. In turn, the book’s story begins to assume a nonlinear format, with entire scenes spontaneously proving to have never happened the instant they conclude. Meanwhile, the protagonists themselves find that they are being drawn through a maze of passages within the alien sphere almost against their will.
Whatever its origins or purpose, the sphere somehow possesses the ability to rewrite time itself, and it is now actively selecting—out of the infinite multitude of possible realities—only those timelines in which the crew happen to behave in a way that is most advantageous to its ends. As the characters reach this realization, they each quietly begin considering a possibility which the Solar Company has deliberately programmed them all to fear: that they might be able to use the sphere’s power to rewrite the very histories that have led to their current lives aboard the Rosebud, and in so doing produce a world that is better than the dystopian corporate realm in which they live.
I think that the strongest element of Rosebud is by far Cornell’s facility for characterization. Given the book’s intentionally surreal setting, it would have been very easy for this sort of narrative simply to come across as scattered and unfocused. Not only does Rosebud begin in the dream-like virtual realm of the Rosebud’s computers (the story opens with the image of Haunt riding heroically into the middle of a simulated apartment atop a galloping horse), but later on the characters also trade their eclectic virtual avatars for an equally bizarre collection of physical forms, many of which can initially prove difficult to keep track of as the reader struggles to remember who is occupying which body. Despite its brief length, Rosebud is a book in which critical story moments unfold within a jumble of disparate scenes, ranging from a simulated re-creation of the set of the television show Space: 1999, to a sequence consisting of Dracula being threatened by an actual prehistoric human said to resemble “Father Christmas.”
These contrasting elements easily could have made the resulting plot tedious to follow, with the book’s rapidly changing settings and scenarios potentially depriving the reader of a solid narrative thread to become invested in. Instead, from his opening scene onward, Cornell roots much of the action of Rosebud in the dialogue of his protagonists, creating surreal but sparsely written scenes driven almost exclusively by an ongoing discussion that unfolds between all five characters as they slowly uncover the true nature of not only the alien sphere, but also their own respective histories. Eventually, each character comes to confront a unique manifestation of their past, with the novella using this as an opportunity to illuminate unexpected points of commonality between all five characters.
The first example of this comes in the form of Haunt, an individual whose position as the novella’s focal protagonist means that his history as a former video game character is forefronted by the narrative. The vaguely comical persona that Haunt regularly assumes could easily have come off as only comic relief. Instead Cornell uses Haunt’s background to introduce themes concerning the nature of personal identity. Scattered references to Haunt’s past show that he has been made to work for the Solar Company, despite himself being a fictional character, because in this world all beings (regardless of their reality) must work for this organization’s interests. As a fictional character whose story has effectively been forgotten, Haunt’s only hope of survival comes from his ability to prove to the Solar Company that he can still produce value for them, even though no one remembers the story of which he was once a part.
There’s an intriguing metaphor here for the commodification of art, with Haunt exploited by a corporate entity intent on reducing him purely to a discrete cultural artifact. However, there’s also a broader set of issues that Cornell introduces. Haunt’s place aboard the Rosebud is ultimately rooted in how the Solar Company has deemed this type of work to be the only method by which Haunt can prove himself profitable. As a result, and even as he also seems regularly still to display traces of the fictitious persona he once occupied, he has instead spent the last three hundred years working to mine dust particles from Saturn’s rings.
Similar themes of discarded or marginalized identities are explored in the histories of the novella’s other four protagonists—all of whom also provide brief and disjointed snapshots of the book’s broader setting. In addition to Haunt, there is Quin, a being whose virtual avatar as a swarm of insects is shown in flashbacks to derive from their distant origins as a cybernetic hivemind. Much as how Haunt originated from a work of fiction deemed no longer profitable, Quin likewise seems to have originated as some type of sentient weapon almost all of which were eventually exterminated by their creator. Likewise, Bob’s habit of making bigoted comments about his fellow crew members is ultimately shown to derive from a long-forgotten history working as an online chatbot designed to wage social media warfare. In one scene, Bob reflects that he fell out of favor with his creators when he unknowingly became partially swayed by the leftist ideologies he had been programmed to discredit.
Finally, there are the book’s two formerly human characters, Diana and Huge If True—both of whom have tragic histories which illuminate the novella’s social themes through the lens of real-world bigotry. In one flashback we briefly see how Diana was once a trans woman whose mind was digitized in an act of what appears to have been a transphobic hate crime—her very ability to exist in a physical body taken from her against her will. Likewise, Huge If True is shown originally to have been part of a non-traditional family unit of some sort, with all members of this family heavily implied to have been killed at some point in the past. Huge If True’s bizarre habit of assuming the virtual form of a giant ball of hands is eventually revealed to be the consequence of a state-sponsored punishment similar to that which Diana underwent—the technology of digital brain-mapping seemingly regularly used as an instrument of oppression.
It’s in these contexts that all five of these characters find themselves faced with an emissary from an alien intelligence and are in turn given the opportunity to go back in time and permanently rewrite their own histories. This sets up an intriguing set of themes regarding rebellion and free will, with the alien sphere constructing a maze-like series of passages for the group to progress through, testing each character to see if they do not pose a threat to it, or if instead the social conditioning they have already endured at the hands of the Solar Company means they are permanently beholden to this entity’s interests.
Given the weighty themes that Rosebud sets itself up to explore, I wish that I could give more wholehearted praise to this story. Unfortunately, as interesting as the novella’s premise is, I also think that the book falls short of its potential in one key element, which is in the way it fails to tie together the stories of its five characters. Rosebud is ultimately the story of how its protagonists are given the option to confront the oppressive social forces under which they live, and this in and of itself represents a strong premise upon which to build a larger narrative. Yet despite Cornell’s skillful writing and expert characterization, his themes surrounding the nature of bigotry and personal identity don’t have the opportunity to develop beyond the brief flashbacks in which they are introduced.
While Haunt’s, Quin’s, Bob’s, Diana’s, and Huge If True’s respective histories all mirror one another in an abstract sense, when viewed in the round they also don’t come together to form a larger narrative of their own. Had these unique histories all linked up in some way—perhaps forming a nonlinear story charting the multi-century rise of the Solar Company and its numerous unnamed predecessors—then the book might have felt more developed. Instead, Rosebud barely has time to introduce the disjointed pasts of each of its protagonists before the novella has reached its conclusion. As a result, the book leaves the reader with an intentionally ambiguous ending that (while extremely well-written) nevertheless feels incomplete. Over the course of this story we see repeated manifestations of the same abstract societal forces of totalitarianism, but the book doesn’t connect these individual histories into a broader story which orients the pasts of each protagonist relative to one another. I feel that this becomes a particularly big deal given that Rosebud ends with the history of the Solar Company itself being fundamentally changed and the lives of all five characters altered for the better as a result.
Despite this, I do feel the need to say that I enjoyed Rosebud. The characters are vividly written, and while the chaotic nature of the novella’s premise can at times be difficult to follow, the book’s themes regarding personal identity and free will still provide a fascinating and unexpected layer of depth. Rosebud offers a bizarre story whose intentional absurdity initially starts out as a point of humor and then transforms itself into an unexpectedly deep series of character portraits that reveal something tragic about each individual’s past. While I feel that the book could at times have done more with its premise, that’s not because the premise itself is lacking.
Editors: Reviews Department
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