Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup
Pat Cadigan

I lucked out with this book. Tea enables two of my current projects: the Cyberpunk Enrichment Program and my vague aim to read more SF written by women. As I have said elsewhere, my actual knowledge of the cyberpunk subgenre is all out of whack with my passionate feelings about it, thus the push to read the standards. It just so happens that Pat Cadigan is known as the queen of cyberpunk, though a queen I had not yet read. Thus even without the well-meaning (and condescending?) positivity surrounding my plan to read and review more women, Cadigan is an absolute necessity; the synergies inherent in the whole mess are making my hair stand on end.

So what have we here? This is definitely cyberpunk, updated a bit for the late 1990s. It’s all very noir, with a variation on the locked room mystery, and it mostly takes place in Artificial Reality (AR), which is kind of like a full-sensory version of Second Life, but seedier and more expensive. (Though to be honest, my only experience with Second Life ended when my friend and I wandered into a bad neighborhood, a virtual prostitute harangued me, her pimp dropped his pants in front of my friend, and when we both rejected them, he pulled out an automatic weapon and opened fire. My character jumped screaming out a window and I logged off. Haven’t been back since.) We don’t quite get the full cyberpunk experience, mainly because there are no glittering cities, dudes in mirror shades, or sinister corporations, but most of the usual plot beats are there: hard-boiled stuff, “cyberspace,” Japan, and a grim near future.

Our guides through Cadigan’s world are Yuki and Konstantin. The former is Japanese, even though Japan collapsed in natural disaster sometime in the past, and is looking for a guy that might eventually be a boyfriend. The latter is a police detective, called in to investigate when some random dude gets killed in AR and, simultaneously, real life. Both of their paths to resolution lead through AR, even though both of them are complete noobs and are basically just endangering themselves while they bleed expense accounts dry. I want to say that Yuki is in San Francisco, though I’m not sure if that is stated or if I just arbitrarily decided that everything felt like SF. Konstantine is from an anonymous bit of unremarkable America that felt heartland-y to me, but I can’t say that for certain. Maybe Kansas City. There is a running gag throughout the book about how “life is so cheap” in DC.

We see very little of the real world, instead following Yuki and Konstantin as they lurch through “Noo Yawk City,” the AR venue du jour. What we do see of the real world is typically grimy, but Noo Yawk City is a full on Escape From New York clone, but with violent furries. (What could be more fun?) There are repeated jokes about how much everything costs, since this appears to have been written before widespread broadband or subscription services. The need for bandwidth hasn’t changed though, with connection speed being the currency and class divide in AR. Those with the answers are those running in the highest resolution and with largest bandwidth.

Like good cyberpunk should be, Tea is dizzying and hallucinogenic. If someone asked me to neatly summarize the plot, I might fail. Yuki’s story in particular walks along a very narrow path, with madness and insensibility on either side; there is a follow up that may or may not shed light on what happened. I think I see echoes of Cadigan in Charlie Stross’ Halting State series, but Cadigan brings in more of the same sort of vertigo that early William Gibson has. The book was a quick, hypnotic read, though it lacked the weight of some others. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to continue in the series, or at least continue with Cadigan in general, before I pass further judgment. I may only being seeing one side of the conversation right now.

This was definitely worth the read. In fact, I have no excuse whatsoever for not reading Cadigan until now. (I wasn’t avoiding her or anything, it just hadn’t happened yet.) I suppose that if I were the type who hated cyberpunk, which to me is sort of like hating peaches, I wouldn’t have much fun with Tea From an Empty Cup. I’m not though, and I did. More Cadigan for me please!

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