Dreamships

Dreamships
Melissa Scott

For me, Melissa Scott falls into that awkward hole of the 1990s mid-list. Too recent to be classic, too old to be a hot fandom topic, she joins far too many others from the era that I haven’t read. Fortunately, Ms. Scott’s name bubbled up in one or another genre conversation, probably Coode Street again, and I got her on to my TBR pile before she was swept away by the swift current of new releases and hot takes. Dreamships arrived from the library in late summer, as a thin and unintimidating volume of about 300 pages. “Should be a quick one,” thought I, but was woefully wrong. Scott writes dense, efficient prose and packs a great deal into not so many words.

The story is ostensibly about a spaceship crew that goes to find a rogue AI programmer, but is really about privilege and hierarchy in a dizzyingly complex society. I am always both excited and disheartened reading older SF – happy to see that we’ve been digging into socially progressive ideas for so long, but distressed that we are still fighting the same battles. Dreamships is no exception. It reads like a precursor to contemporary iconoclasts like Kameron Hurley or Stephanie Saulter, bridging the temporal gap between them and more historical voices like Delaney, Tiptree, and Russ. There are also hints of Swann’s Hostile Takeover Trilogy in particular, and cyberpunk in general, though there is a certain voice that identifies everything as “1990s SF.” I wish I could pin down what it is, but I can’t. Still, something about the book is very obviously from that era. Maybe it’s the tech, or maybe it’s the Gibson-esque, corporately dystopic setting. It may go down as one of cyberpunk’s last stands, before the dot-com boom and standard genre development swallowed the movement up into the mainstream.

It’s difficult to summarize exactly what is going on, but there are overlapping, even conflicting, dialogues occurring in the book over who should have what rights. Two ruling groups claim the planet involved, one governmental and the other corporate, each with its privileged and oppressed factions. On top of this, people are arguing over AI rights and development, unable to resolve the lines that an AI needs to cross to be considered “human,” or even if such a thing is possible. What we get are lines of attack and defense similar to contemporary real life, as we try to sort out gender, racial, and class equality. Rights themselves are not finite, but the time and resources we can spend on the fight are; none of us can advocate for every cause. Characters in the book confront this same problem.

Other things surprised me a bit as well. The viewpoint character is female, and is the ideal of the archetype in terms of strength, agency, and role. Indeed, things are split fairly evenly along male and female lines with no sense that this is anything but perfectly normal. Likewise, every relationship spelled out in the book is same-sex, again with the characters treating this as completely acceptable, even obvious. I recognize the value in portraying the struggles these groups have now, but also appreciate storytellers who present our ideals as attainable to the point that they are run of the mill for characters.

I am also forced to appreciate the era in which these are presented. Sometimes it seems like feminist SF, diverse SF, or LBGT-friendly SF is new and shiny, something we should be proud of ourselves for thinking up. Then I read back and find out that, hey, people were saying this exact same thing twenty, forty years ago and more. Perhaps we should back pat less, and fight more, since it seems like not enough progress is being made. (Has there been a stronger backlash recently, or am I just more conscious of it? I feel like the US-based Culture Wars that flared up post-Obama are a driver here, but maybe I am naïve and it was this bad in the early 2000s as well.) The fight is real, and we can’t let up. We owe it to those like Scott, who came before us and did their part.

Er, back to the book review. As I said earlier, Dreamships is dense and demanding. I expected to blow through this much quicker than I did, not knowing the meaty goodness in store. I will be reading more Scott books as I find them and urge others do the same. This one is recommended for those who like a more challenging read, especially one that digs into thorny social issues. Also AI development! Lots of Turing tests here to go with some hacking and anarchic mischief, so maybe something for everyone.

Thirteen

Thirteen
Richard Morgan

I sometimes ask myself where cyberpunk went. Science fiction as a whole long since absorbed both the subversive attacks and the near-future tech tropes into its Borg-like mass, but once in a long while, true cyberpunk still leaps out of the shadows. (Japan seems to maintain a steady export business: Mardock Scramble, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) Until he got sidetracked into grimdark fantasy, Richard Morgan made aggressive claims to the contemporary cyberpunk throne, with Thirteen his strongest appeal. Morgan has said in interviews that he will be returning to SF soon, to which I say, “Huzzah.” He burns with the rage of a much younger idealist, writing in worlds that descend directly from 1980s-era Gibson or Sterling. It warms my Max Headroom influenced heart.

One question should be briefly addressed before digging into the really nerdy stuff. Thirteen‘s title in the UK is Black Man; the decision to change the name in the US has come under some fire. Given that Morgan’s protagonist is black, and that Thirteen/Black Man digs deeply into issues of discrimination, there is a certain whiff of cowardly marketing to the new title. However, in addition to being black, the hero, Carl, is a GMO from a frightening group known as “Thirteens.” His skin color is sometimes an issue, but the primary reason he is persecuted is his genetic modification. If the publisher is trying to highlight the real discrimination in the book, Thirteen is the more accurate title. I do think that the decision had much more to do with trying to avoid controversy in the racially charged US, but I also think that the US title is probably a better reflection of the story. Reasonable minds may differ.

Back to the fun stuff. Morgan builds his story on two assumptions. First, the US has divided into what might be seen as its natural political geography: the West Coast, the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and everything else. That everything else is referred to as Jesusland and not painted in the most flattering light, while the NE and West Coast are basically what we would expect those places to turn into, at least in a vaguely dystopic and cyberpunky future. Second, Morgan has a particular sociological theory at the base of things, one that postulates human societies gradually moving from a male structure (violence, hunting, hierarchy based on raw strength, competition) to a female structure (cultivation, cooperation, compromise). The males who can’t function in this new world are weeding themselves out by doing stupid things like extreme sports, carrying loaded guns to Home Depot and shooting themselves in the butt, flocking to military and para-military groups, and generally finding ways to bow to evolutionary pressure as the traditional feudal patriarch drifts into genetic obsolescence. (One of those things was in the real news, not the book, but fits well.)

The above is pretty heavy philosophizing. Fortunately for the reader, most of what actually happens in Thirteen is super tough people beating the crap out of each other, usually with vivid descriptions of traumatized internal organs or detached, airborne limbs. Morgan is quite the most gleefully violent of the cyberpunks. Thirteens were originally created to be remorseless super soldiers, something that sounds great to governments until they suddenly have an excess of death machines just sitting around with no appreciable job skills beyond mayhem. After some retrenchment by the powers that be, Carl gets a job hunting down his fellow GMOs to either ship them off to Mars, incarcerate them in a remote camp, or dispose of them. Shades of Blade Runner. Actually, now that we bring up that iconic film, there is another bit that invites comparison. For whatever unknown reason, thirteens are probably the chattiest bunch of superkillers ever put to page. Anyone who enjoyed the last scenes of Blade Runner and their long soliloquies will love Thirteen. Not content with merely shooting and beating each other, thirteens love sitting around talking about who is superior, usually as someone lies dying on the floor.

Anyway, Carl’s job lands him in the middle of a serial killer plot, wherein he hunts down a Thirteen who is in turn hunting others. In standard cyberpunk noir fashion, we meet cops (from both coasts), hookers, gangsters, hackers, and assorted corrupt government types as Carl travels the world and unravels the convoluted mystery. These are all the plot beats deprived cyberpunks like me have been missing, but updated with the politics and economics of the new millennium. Morgan gives more depth to the story with the philosophical bantering and social commentary, so readers can engage at any level: flying heads, near-future grit, or populist anger.

A certain demographic may prove unable to enjoy just the flying heads. Morgan is not coy with his politics and is especially condescending to Jesusland and its denizens. Many Two Dudes readers probably share the Dudes’ opinions of the American South, its political and religious situation, and its racial history; these people will merely smile and nod as Carl carves a swath of destruction through Florida. Others will no doubt get up in arms about Socialism, social justice, or some other bugbear and fling their copies across their double-wide trailers. The gentle reader should consider himself/herself warned, but also advised that skipping out on Thirteen means missing a big pile of fun. A pile of fun, even, with mirrorshades on.

Morgan is not subtle, but he is entertaining and kinetic. With one intentional exception, Thirteen hurtles along at breakneck speed, leaving carnage and metaphysics in its wake. The book is like Carl: tough, takes no prisoners, and delights in confrontation. This is cyberpunk shorn of Gibson’s sardonic veneer, Sterling’s sinister weirdness, or Rucker’s Muppets-on-LSD lunacy, leaving the flaming core of rage at The Man and the revolution it engenders. The violence and the politics mean it might not be for everyone (hi, mom), but Thirteen is hypnotic and compelling.

The Peripheral

The Peripheral
William Gibson

Now that we are shambling raggedly out of Vintage SF Month, it’s time to take another look at The Future as seen from the cutting edge of now. That description fits William Gibson better than anyone else I can think of, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a brand new Gibson book out there, illuminating the path to tomorrow like a cheap, buzzing, neon sign for some establishment our mothers would never recommend. All the cool kids know that Gibson’s place is where it’s at, that no matter the décor, we’re going to leave with something mind blowing. We also know the squares will never understand what’s hip and Chez Gibson won’t ever get that Michelin star or Booker prize. It’s their loss though, so put on your mirrorshades and jack in.

Most reactions to The Peripheral call it a return to form for the author. Not that The Peripheral is traditional cyberpunk, but that the author is back to bigger futures, deeper themes, and a more colorful palette. Or at least a palette with more shades of black than before. I enjoyed the preceding Blue Ant books, but each felt progressively narrower. While the stories were as slick and hypnotic as ever, the stakes and characters grew more rarefied as the trilogy progressed. In The Peripheral, Gibson opens up his vision again and creates two futures for the price of one, on the biggest canvas he’s used since the Sprawl books. The plot beats are familiar, but the book maintains deep connections to right now while showing a radically different future.

While all SF naturally reflects that era it was written in, Gibson makes that more of an obvious feature in his writing. Think of the 80s sheen of the Neuromancer books or the embryonic otaku culture in Aidoru. The Peripheral is no different, with its meth cooking, 3D printing near future and deconstructed post-Singularity secondary timeline. We all feel right at home in Clanton County, where the entirety of the local economy is drug production and illicit printing and many of the prominent locals are wounded, messed up vets. It’s pretty clear from the outset that the US has slid into an untenable economic state, that the superrich have sucked the country dry, the climate is out of control, and things are going to get very bad, very soon. Some people have called this “political,” but to me it just seems an all too plausible destination of the track we’re on.

The parallel, further future timeline is wildly different, but still connected intimately with today. An anti-Singularity called The Jackpot has depopulated most of the middle and lower economic classes, finally bringing environmental problems under control simply by eliminating much of humanity. This future is run by kleptocrats, the very rich and very corrupt 1%, though one could argue that what portions of humanity remain are doing alright. Most of the political questions are toned down in this future though, with more of the focus on the requisite array of very strange people out there in this brave new (sparsely populated) world. The action centers around a London populated by PR flakes, whacko conceptual artists, Russian organized crime, strangely omniscient policewomen, body guards with quirks and flaws, and other typically Gibson-esque creations.

The Singularity isn’t Gibon’s only target for subversion. There are nods to cyberspace, consciousness transfer, and time travel. The last makes for the core of the book, as Gibson posits a mysterious ability of the future to view and interact with the past. There is no “travel,” per se, though people can cast their consciousness into empty vessels on either end. It’s kind of like time travel, but more like on online game. Time passes in parallel, one’s body stays in the same place, and destruction of a vessel does not necessarily equal death in the “real” world. In this way, people from Clanton County and London visit each other, meddle in the other’s affairs, wonder who’s really manipulating who, and solve the mystery driving all of the action.

The writing and plot will be familiar to veterans of other Gibson campaigns. Things take a bit of time to get rolling, but the action is dizzying once the final quarter begins. We are dropped into both worlds with little to no infodumping, puzzling out the situation from hints dropped through interactions and language. A completeness is present in the details that somehow never overwhelm the bigger picture, though looking back one is surprised by the small things that appear in the story, little descriptive nuggets that are optional but somehow perfect and appropriate. Gibson is almost pointillist in the way he creates the bigger scene through tiny dots of language and minutia; I often had to read passages more than once to figure out exactly what happened, though it all made perfect sense once I saw the whole outline. I’ve always found his writing both elegant and spare, with a mix of humor and cynicism that is immediately recognizable.

I realize as I go that by trying to dig out the crunchy fun inside The Peripheral, I’m obscuring it, and by explaining my long-running Gibson fandom, I’m reducing his overall cool stat by at least two six-sided dice. Many of the interviews and reviews I’ve been reading are written by people like me: Gen X types who discovered Neuromancer and the primitive internet at roughly the same time, who grew up on computer games like Star Control and Bard’s Tale, and who got an electric vibe from cyberpunk that still resonates, even as the aesthetic of the subgenre has long since been absorbed by its surrounding society. I try to separate my unavoidable hero worship of the author from hard hitting literary analysis, but it’s will nigh impossible. I am a massive William Gibson fan and I’m ecstatic that he wrote something huge and complex like The Peripheral.

So sycophantic fawning aside, everyone should read this, except maybe people that just don’t like Gibson’s books, but I don’t know why they’d be reading this blog anyway.

Counting Heads

Counting Heads
David Marusek

I’ve had a hard time finding an angle to write about with Counting Heads. Normally I give up on books that don’t immediately present an entertaining topic for an article, but Marusek’s world is both unique and obscure enough that I want to talk about it. Still, it’s not the easiest thing to make a post from, despite taking on all sorts of crunchy issues in a surreal, cyberpunk-y world. Ah well, let’s dig in and see what what we can make of it all.

More than anything else, what stands out in Counting Heads is the world building. Marusek has clearly spent time inhabiting this creation, giving it an extensive history and complex society. If forced to pigeonhole things, I would file the book in cyberpunk, but it is no Gibson-Sterling clone. I was frequently reminded of Rudy Rucker while I read, though Counting Heads is not nearly as weird as The Ware Tetralogy. It has a similar vibe, combining an uneasy, if not quite dystopian, future with well-reasoned but very strange people. It also has smells, which may have sealed the deal for me. (The cheesy robots and seared unfortunates might get along well.) Marusek blends nanotech, pervasive augmented reality, cloning, Heinleinian family setups, and near-future economics. One review I read speculated that the society is on the verge of a Singularity – it may be, with AI and digitized dead people on the horizon. It’s a grab bag of contemporary issues, presented under the domes set up to protect cities from nanoplagues, by people trapped in a society that is no longer economically viable and searching for answers. The last bit should feel right at home for us.

The economy may be the most impressive world building feat. Marusek’s scientists have found paths both to near immortality and to human cloning. Either of these alone would be a fundamental economic game changer, but together would blow up pretty much everything. Only in a complete post-scarcity world could society withstand that double challenge. The people in Counting Heads seem to have solved some natural resource questions (not all, but more than we have), but the basics remain competitive. Without a very high floor for food, housing, health care, and education, cloning and lifespans in the 200s would devastate the middle class; this is exactly what is happening in Counting Heads. Not only are traditional humans suffering, but whole clans of clones are confronting obsolescence and its resulting poverty. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but Marusek is painfully close to describing global economics today. It grants the characters a harrowing sympathy.

And a wild assortment of characters they are. We see the super rich, the “seared” outcasts, a co-op trying to make a go of it, clones, a troubled religious leader, and the random denizens of the near future. The viewpoint character for the co-op is a man who has elected to remain twelve forever, both physically and emotionally. He has a good job, but is stunningly superficial; though whether this is by necessity or choice is never clear. The clones are represented by a “Russ,” a clone type used for most security work. This particular Russ may be having a psychological crisis that is forking him off into a new type, or may not. His attempts to make sense of his own psyche amidst his genetically taciturn brethren form one of my favorite subplots. The seared unfortunate is the narrator of the short story that opens the book, who then retreats into a background role that offers a melodic counterpoint to the rest. All are distinct and engaging, likewise the more prominent secondary characters, though my sympathies lie primarily with the groups of clones. I have no idea why, but I found their stories to be the most entertaining.

All of this forms the backdrop for a rather conventional plot, involving someone’s head standing in for the requisite MacGuffin. It’s almost an afterthought, with plenty of other things going on that are probably not related to the head, but ultimately more important. In fact, the location and condition of the head drives one particular plot point that I was never sure needed to be driven in that way. We are told by a couple of unreliable types that a certain outcome would be bad. Certain other unreliable types go along with that and do some unreliable things as a result. Was this the best answer? I guess so, though it’s hard to say. I’m actually more interested in whatever is going on with the domes, how the Russes and other clones are dealing with things, whether or not the seared guy will turn himself into a wheelchair-bound fireball at a hilarious time or not, and if that crazy co-op group will beat down their equally crazy neighbors. The head is nice and all, and is probably a charming person once reattached to something, but it wasn’t the center of my life. I suppose there would have to be a different title without it, so there is that.

I don’t know where to place this in the broader, near-future firmament. It’s kind of cyberpunk. It’s definitely soft SF, with its focus on society over technology. It’s a moderately deep character study of some very sideways people. There is potential here for the next books in the series to dig into some serious issues, and the world to open up into something distinctive, but there is also a chance that things merely plod along with a bunch of navel gazing weirdos. Regardless, I think Counting Heads deserves more notice and more conversation, though it didn’t quite grab me by the lips and yank. “Detached fascination” might be the operative words here, but I will be reading more.

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!

Spook Country

Spook Country
William Gibson

When I first read William Gibson (the Sprawl books in reverse order about twenty years ago), I thought his books were fun, but a bit light. Even after Neuromancer exploded my brain, I wasn’t totally sold on him as being anything more than entertainment. Long years and several books later, I wonder if William Gibson isn’t one of the most important SF writers at work today. Spook Country in particular has forced me to reconsider some long held opinions and is tempting me toward some serious rereading.

Many readers no doubt question Gibson’s status as an actual SF writer now, as his trilogies creep steadily backward in time. Indeed, Spook Country is specifically set in 2006, now several years behind us. Gibson is on record several times saying things like, “The present is crazy enough without me going and making up any more weirdness.” Spook certainly reflects this, coming off as a hallucinatory cross between John le Carre and Vernor Vinge, but it was not written in a vacuum. Holding steady throughout the trilogies is the re-creation of the noir aesthetic, updated each time for a new now. If the Sprawl was noir filtered through Blade Runner and Max Headroom, and The Bridge through Japan’s pop cultural exports and the early dot-com boom, then the Blue Ant books are noir in the post-9/11 world.

Like classic noir, Spook Country is wholly urban, playing out mostly in New York and LA. The characters are in pursuit of a MacGuffin-driven mystery, finding their answers in the underworld from various sketchy and bohemian types. Mysterious powers are moving behind the scenes. All of the basic elements of a Chandler or Elroy novel are present, just as they are in cyberpunk. This time, however, the mystery involves container ships, the “detective” is a one-time indie rocker turned tech journalist, she meets avant-garde artists who work in an augmented reality medium, and the manipulating powers include Iraq War racketeers and shadowy operatives who may or may not be connected to the US government. All this and we have yet to meet Tito, the Cuban-born, ethnic Chinese, Bronx resident member of an immigrant spy clan, or Bigend himself, the very archetype of the post-modern super rich.

This may seem dizzying. Taken in isolation, any single part of the plot elicits a “yeah, right” response. Together though, the reaction is closer to, “this is crazy, but it just might work!” Holding everything together is Gibson’s prose, which, to sound utterly obsequious, is how I wish I could write. All the unexpected turns of phrase, the dry as toast wit, and the vague sense that everything is weirder and more sinister than it seems is at its crackling best. Without ever descending into screed or tirades, Gibson smoothly blows up everything in his path, sparing little of 2006 America but always maintaining plausible deniability. This pushes right through to the end, with a conclusion that some might think a letdown, but I see as an appropriately quirky resolution to a plot that was never conventional anyway.

Several themes will be familiar to long time Gibson fans: the vague paranoia, the inscrutable motives of the insanely wealthy, and the nods to pop culture and pervasive branding. Gibson remains unique among SF writers with his scrupulous attention to details of clothing and trademarks, enough that we generally know everything from color to style to brand name that the characters wear. He also tosses a bone to cyberspace lovers with the locational art scene, driven by the virtual layers that said artists create over real world locations with their pirated bandwidth and concealed routers. This is the only book I know of that details the early beginnings of augmented reality, a trope that is now commonplace in most near future SF. This bit is of special interest to me, working as I do in an industry that is slowly putting this into action.

Taken together, this is a cocktail of technology, spy tradecraft, and pop culture that only Gibson can blend into his customary sinister cool. I’m don’t think any other SF writer has a finger on the pulse of modern America like Gibson does, nor am I convinced that any mainstream writer has the tech knowledge to understand it either. We ostensibly read SF to peer into the future; William Gibson instead gives us a clearer view of the present.

The Ware Tetralogy

The Ware Tetralogy
Rudy Rucker

The Ware books mark another chapter in my quest to read the cyberpunk standard works. As chronicled before, I came into this blog project with an intense love of what I thought cyberpunk to be, without actually knowing much beyond Neuromancer or Shadowrun. Rudy Rucker was near the top of my Must Read list; last summer I finally girded myself up for the slightly daunting Ware series. (Any time four books are crammed into one compendium, the length is intimidating.) Rucker’s place in Cyberpunkia is a bit like Graham Chapman’s in Monty Python: a true anarchist among a group of mere zany genius. Even compared to Bruce Sterling, no mainstream denizen himself, Rucker is gonzo, his books somehow distilling cutting edge math and computer science with hallucinogenic depravity.

In fact, taken in terms of cyberpunk, the Ware saga was almost impossible to parse. Neo-noir Asian cities are replaced by Louisville; AI and sinister cyberspace denizens give way to robots that smell of cheese; black leather and mirror shades are far outnumbered by Bermuda shorts and surf boards. Very little of Rucker’s seething, squishy near-future has anything to do with, say, Chiba City. It wasn’t until I listened to this episode of the Coode Street Podcast that I understood the difference between the Cyberpunk Movement and the cyberpunk genre. (Coode Street, by the way, is required listening for anyone wanting to make sense of SFF as a whole.) Once I saw this, everything made sense. Rucker is part of the Movement, but the Ware books are most definitely not in the genre.

To summarize Coode Street (and plenty of other scholarly types), the Cyberpunk Movement arose in the early 1980s not as a bunch of authors deciding to write about the internet, but as a bunch of authors reacting to the blockbuster SF of the 1970s that seemed to ignore the advances of the New Wave, using instead the basic tropes and assumptions of Golden Age SF. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Niven and Pournelle, would be Example #1 of the offending stuff. The early cyberpunks disavowed the Golden Age world view like the New Wave before them, then wrote stories that reflected the new realities of the 1980s. It is perhaps coincidental that Neuromancer codified what would later become the cyberpunk genre, while the author was attempting something else entirely. Ware fits in neatly with this narrative, much more so than with any attempt to reconcile Rucker’s boppers with Gibson’s hackers.

Ware is in fact a direct response to that most venerable and hoary SF warhorse, Asimov’s I, Robot. Why, asks Rucker, should these self-aware entities subject themselves to the blatantly human centered and human serving Laws of Robotics? Rucker is also anticipating the singularity dialogue, which like Asimov tends to assume that AI will naturally be more rational than and coldly superior to our feeble brains. The Ware robots short circuit the Laws of Robotics early on, seeing no good reason to be humanity’s benevolent slaves, and quickly prove to be every bit as petty and illogical as their creators. The robots have no shortage of zany plots, leading to scenes of brain-eating robots driving around in ice cream trucks, a loopy take down of Stranger in a Strange Land, and drugs that literally turn users into puddles. We visit, in addition to the previously mentioned cyberpunk hotbed of Louisville, a part of Florida ceded by the US to cranky geezers, the robot controlled Moon, a dilapidated Santa Cruz, a Bay Area where Silicon Valley never happened and the population of weirdos held steady, and a Tonga that has been visited by aliens.

Adding to the weirdness is Rucker’s professed secondary objective: an exploration of the drug use of the future. The boppers and moldies themselves (the robots of the Ware universe) are a direct counter to Asmiov, but the rest of the books blithely cross SF with Jack Kerouac and Naked Lunch, all with, to quote Weird Al Yankovic, “just a hint of cheese.” The cheese in this case is literal, as the moldies are made of odoriferous soft plastic and attract a certain type of human that gets off on the smell. This is occasionally not for the faint of heart. The merry band of hippies, stoners, surf bums, and computer programmers is led by one Sta-Hi, whose name should give some indication of what might be going on. It is very difficult to overstate the weirdness going on here.

And yet, there are some serious questions underneath the multiple layers of depravity. Rucker’s trademark math wizardry is present, as well as sidelong commentary on American race relations and our capacity to handle prosperity. By the fourth book, the reader realizes that it’s not all drug-fueled craziness. All of the intelligences on display reflect our own idiosyncrasies and foibles, some more sympathetically than others. Nobody in Ware, from Sta-Hi on down, will be recorded in the annals of our most valiant heroes, but they all have something to say about the way we treat each other.

Condensing the entirety of The Ware Tetralogy is a bit of a hopeless task. The story careens from cyberpunk to social commentary to hallucinogenic drug use to bizarre comedy in the space of one or two paragraphs and utterly frustrates attempts at summary. It is not perhaps for everyone. The target audience however, will appreciate the ride. Rucker doesn’t seem to get the press that Gibson or Sterling does, probably because he is so out there, but he is an integral part of their clique. Ware is perhaps his greatest achievement and deserves wider recognition; it is required reading for any serious student of contemporary SF.

Rating: This is taxing me severely. Are there any beat poets of football in the UK? Perhaps an iconic chronicle of debased hooligan culture?

This Alien Shore

This Alien Shore
C.S. Friedman

I’ve done it again! Yet another set of consecutive books covers the same theme. These always sneak up on me, either through carelessness, publisher deception, or blind luck. I had seen Friedman’s name bandied about and figured I should read something of hers, despite occasionally conflating her with C.S. Forrester in my addled brain. I was under the impression that she wrote mostly fantasy, so I picked up This Alien Shore expecting some similarity to The January Dancer or some other space opera written by a fantasy specialist. Instead, and to my great surprise, Shore asks the same sort of questions as the last book I read. I’ll leave this suspense unresolved for just a sentence longer to say that nobody is more surprised than I that Friedman’s book so neatly dovetails with none other than When Gravity Fails.

One might easily scoff. After all, Gravity is a cyberpunk classic with no apparent relation to a novel of the far future with some ambitions of Sharing a Message. But, just as Effinger challenged cyberpunk assumptions and pushed the boundaries of the genre, Friedman is taking cyberpunk as far from the slate gray skies of Chiba City as she can. More on the Message Sharing later. To review, and this is the last time I will mention Gravity, Effinger’s experiment was to remove much of what we assume is standard in cyberpunk, ie shiny computers, glittering neon cities, and disreputable hackers, and replace it with a North African slum. Relying on the noir underpinnings of cyberpunk, he daringly combined Raymond Chandler, Islam, neural implants, and a lot of drugs to create a book that is wholly unconventional, but an undisputed cyberpunk classic. Friedman? Something, as they say, completely different.

Shore makes no claim to being cyberpunk. Further, I doubt Friedman had any intention of writing cyberpunk, but I can’t look at it as anything but. Consider: The book is actually two concurrent stories that meet towards the end of the book, but are not required by any part of the plot to actually come together. Unlike numerous books where there is actually some hidden and shocking connection, or, say, The Club Dumas, where the lack of a connection is key to the entire story, Shore could actually be two separate books. The fact that Story #1 and Story #2 don’t actually need to intersect, and indeed don’t even influence each other, is not commented on. Setting aside story #1, the one described on the dust jacket, Story #2 is where my left field claim is made, because Story #2 is all about cyberspace.

It’s not called cyberspace, of course, because this is the far future. It is, however, all about a virus, a security expert and coder extraordinaire who tracks the virus, a hacker who chases down information from his own shadowy angle, and all sorts of cyberspace shenanigans that result from the grand pursuit. Despite the publisher implications of a rather different story, most of the book is spent looking at code, talking about code, writing code, or having an occasional High Noon Internet showdown. And yet a brief perusal of reviews (not scientific or comprehensive by any definition) turned up very little engagement with this part of the story. I suppose there are two reasons for this. First is the deep world building going on in conjunction with Story #1. Second, and more relevant for me, is that Friedman has gone in the opposite direction of Effinger. She has pulled the noir foundation and left the technology, rather like the magician who proclaims, “The hand is faster than the eye!” as he whips the tablecloth out from under the crystal dining set. Shore is almost unrecognizable as cyberpunk because those things we don’t realize are so important, the hard boiled seediness of it all, are missing. This begs the question of what it is that really defines the genre, if Effinger’s book is and Friedman’s isn’t.

But setting aside genre ruminations, Story #1 begs for attention. This is where most of the back story comes into play. Long ago, humanity sent out their first wave of galactic colonists, not realizing that the FTL of the time inflicted horrible genetic mutations on all involved. When Earth saw that its colonies were full of freakish mutants, they cut off all contact, withdrew to the Solar System, and left the colonies to rot. Much later on the planet Guera, where each mutation was accepted, categorized, and dealt with, a new FTL system was discovered. The only problem? Only one particular mutation could take ships through the wormhole-like objects safely, avoiding the soul-sucking creatures found inside. Warhammer 40,000 fans will feel right at home with the idea of insane pilots guiding their ships through a warp full of slavering monsters. The Guerans reopened the stars, though they maintain tight control over the means of transportation. They eventually made their way to Earth and allowed their ancestors back into the system, though much antagonism remains on both sides.

Into this world comes Jamisia Shido, who is schizophrenic and hunted because she may contain some mad secret within her multiple personalities. Jamisia is ostensibly the main character and the focal point of the story, even as much of the action centers around the completely unrelated virus storyline. Jamisia, however, allows the story to see more of Friedman’s world and permits The Message to rear its ugly head. Fortunately, and just as I was getting a sinking feeling in my gut, Friedman decided that while tolerance and whatnot are great, they don’t really need to be smashed repeatedly into the reader’s skull. I was much relieved when the author took a step back from the soapbox, even if I agree that we really should just be friends, even if that guy next to me has two heads and scales.

It doesn’t appear that Friedman has spent any more time in this universe, which is somewhat surprising. It seems ripe for exploitation, but perhaps the right idea has yet to present itself. I will read a follow-up if it ever appears, since this is a world I would enjoy spending more time in. This Alien Shore was plenty rewarding and interesting enough to keep me thinking, even if I wasn’t thinking about the same topic the author was.

Rating: FIFA’s admirable, but probably ineffective, campaign to rid football of racism. Good luck with that, FIFA.

When Gravity Fails

When Gravity Fails
George Alec Effinger

Despite my deep and abiding love for cyberpunk, I am shockingly ill-versed in its canon. Aside from William Gibson, my knowledge of actual, classic cyberpunk is spotty at best. I am familiar with its tropes because cyberpunk is largely synonymous with the era I grew up in; anyone who started using computers with DOS 4, logged on to a local BBS, thought Prodigy was sinister, and once used Telnet on a daily basis does not need critics to explain what all those crazy people were doing when they jacked in. So it is that my cultural knowledge and overall geekiness has obscured my inexcusable literary ignorance. It is time to remedy this one step at a time.

Effinger decides to answer the question: What happens to cyberpunk when you take out the computers and hackers, pull the story out of Asia or Silicon Valley, and replace everything with disreputable Muslim ghettos?  The answer appears to be: the Budayeen and Marid Audran. The latter is an unremarkable man for hire who lives in the former, the grittiest red light district in an unidentified North African city. (Effinger never names it, but I guess it would have to be Tripoli, if it is anywhere that currently exists.) The author here is counting on the fact that cyberpunk is basically detective noir with technology; the key is in certain aspects of the characters and settings, not the hacking. This is definitely a risk. To many, cyberpunk means glittering cities, often in Japan, people dressed in black clothes and mirrored sunglasses, and computerized hijinks on some advanced form of the Internet.

Gravity provides some tech, but relies instead on familiar noir archetypes: the shabby but honorable detective, prostitutes with hearts of varying degrees of gold, mobsters, corrupt cops, and the like. One set does not preclude the other, of course, but Effinger is gambling that undercutting the reader’s genre expectations will not damage the story. Take out the neural plug-ins, wild surgical techniques and designer drugs, replace Ramadan with the 4th of July, and we have a story that could be a new Raymond Chandler novel. (Of course, one could say the same of other cyberpunk, after stripping out computers, AI, and neon.) Even more impressive, this was published in 1988, pushing the boundaries early on in ways that haven’t been equaled. Does it work?

Anyone who knows their SF history might remember that Gravity was a Hugo nominee in 1988, a particularly strong year for the award. That implies that it worked back in the day, but near-future writing often ages badly. Effinger, though, should be proud to know that Gravity was good then, and is good now. Part of this is luck: he has not overestimated the rate of technological change, and even gets a couple of things right, like cell phones. A major part of this is by design, however. His story and setting require little high tech; this is a slum, after all. The mystery is based on standard mystery motifs of power and politics, both are independent of time and location. Even culturally, things don’t feel too far off, a rarity for Cold War era near-futures. There are references to a collapsed Soviet Empire, but nothing obtrusive. In some ways, the Budayeen feels even more real now, as the Arab world takes center stage in American foreign policy.

Effinger moves slowly into the story. Things start with a bang, then immediately pull back. The murders continue at a steady pace, but Marid isn’t really on the case until halfway through the book. Instead, we watch things develop the way a Budayeen denizen would. Bad things happen, unrelated bad things happen, good things happen, holidays come, and life follows a normal rhythm. Only as the tension ratchets up for the characters does the mystery get fully underway; by this point the reader has become a part of the Budayeen. It’s probably just as well that the atmosphere is so compelling. Much like some Chandler novels, the actual mystery is subject to some holes, bits of convenience, and unexplained miscellanea, but it serves its purpose. It is only fair to say that while I will remember the city and the characters, details of the plot will probably fade from recollection.

I have only one lingering fear from reading Gravity. Because I’m pretty much ignorant of Arab culture, everything in the book seemed authentic and exotic. I wonder how much of that is superficial and if it would all be greeted by exasperation by a real live Arab. Some SF circles are starting to talk more about cultural presentation, who should be allowed to write about what culture, what we owe to minorities, etc., so this was in the back of my mind as I read the novel. Still, if nothing else, the book is a bold attempt at pushing the boundaries of cyberpunk. Whatever its faults, it has my respect for steaming full speed ahead to uncharted waters. Gravity is a must read for the cyberpunk connoisseur.

Rating: Egypt-Algeria matches. For whatever reason, the two teams hate each other. When they meet with something on the line, hide the women and children.

Mardock Scramble

Mardock Scramble
Ubukata To

Why do Japan and cyberpunk go together like chocolate and peanut butter? It wasn’t random chance that the sky the color of a television tuned to a dead channel was first seen from a Tokyo suburb, though the magic of Neuromancer long obscured from me the fact that Chiba is basically Tokyo’s Connecticut. In spite of this natural affinity, Japan’ major contributions to the cyberpunk movement have primarily been visual. If anyone is writing novels in the subgenre, they aren’t being translated; this is why Mardock Scramble so groundbreaking. I’m sure that Ubukata isn’t the first to write cyberpunk in Japan, but if he gets even half of the recognition he deserves, 2011 will be a watershed.

If Bruce Sterling decided he needed to be even more outrageously grotesque and gave Iain Banks a call, who then recommended grabbing Neal Stephenson and his gratuitous infodumps, then the three of them decided to create a coming of age revenge anime, Mardock Scramble is what might result. This is not to imply that it is derivative, because nothing could be further from the truth, but one has to start somewhere in making sense of it all. Ubukata writes with remarkable confidence and self-assurance, enough that it is almost his undoing in Mardock. Still, he pulls it off. The premise of the story is simple enough: a young prostitute is almost killed by an unsavory character. She is rescued by two PI’s, who team up with her to track down and convict her would be killer. Along the way she grows up and learns Important Life Lessons. No surprises here.

Of course things are never this simple. The great thing about cyberpunk is that the author can pretty much take today, turn a dial labeled “Technology” up a couple notches, then turn a knob labeled “Weirdness” up several notches, and a setting magically appears. Mardock City is instantly recognizable as an archetypal future-noir metropolis, though Ubukata makes it his own. The characters too are staples of the noir/cyberpunk canon, but tweaked and refracted at all sorts of odd angles. Rune-Balot is a prostitute with an unenviable past but an incandescent future, who can sense electromagnetic currents. Her PI rescuers include a mad scientist with tie-dyed hair (Dr. Easter) and a small, cybernetic, shape-shifting golden mouse (Oeufcoque). The title of the book is taken from a law called “Scramble 09,” which empowers people like The Doctor and Oeufcoque to prove their usefulness to society by helping unfortunates like Rune-Balot. Balot’s killer is named Shell. He employs Oeufcoque’s former partner, Boiled, as a bodyguard and hitman. Yes, the egg analogy runs throughout the book, but I am far too impatient to sit down and analyze the whole thing.

Ubukata sets up the whole thing with great elan. He puts the plot in motion and practically dares the reader not to come along. Don’t like lengthy discussions of ethics? Too bad. Not interested in the intricacies of roulette? Tough. Prefer to avoid hard-boiled and grotesque characters? Wrong genre. He comes very close to losing his audience with a 300 page deconstruction and shakedown of a casino that I still can’t believe made it through editing. I will give the man credit: I kept reading, and it kept being interesting, but spending one third of the book on successive games of poker, roulette, and (mostly) blackjack is a quick way to reduce a book from “seminal” to “self-indulgent.” And yet, in spite of everything that should have derailed the story, Mardock hurtles ahead at unsafe speeds.

Changing course a bit, it is worth taking some time to compare Mardock with Western cyberpunk. The setting and plot are more or less standard for the genre. Mardock City is not readily identifiable as Earth, there is no indication that humanity has reached the stars or spread to other worlds. It is basically what one would expect from a cyberpunk city is almost every way – glossy, high tech cityscapes, desperate slums, political and corporate corruption, organized crime, glittering neon, wild future technology, and some really messed up people. Likewise, the plot is basically a hard boiled mystery and revenge tale, paired with strange cybertech and a young girl coming of age. Regular stuff, until Japan starts creeping in.

First off, things are infused with a pervasive anime vibe, offset with a delicate overlay of Goth-Loli aesthetic. (If the gentle reader is not acquainted with Goth-Loli, imagine a combination of pale faces, dark makeup, French maid costumes, brooding gloominess, and that wonderful Japanese Hello Kitty cuteness. Alternately, just stop while you’re ahead and don’t think about it at all, preventing a desire to scratch out eyes.) I’m having a hard time coming up with a good explanation of what exactly this vibe entails, but like pornography and a certain Supreme Court judge, I know it when I see it. The characters don’t have wild, blue hair, oversized eyes, or a habit of opening their mouths really wide when they talk, but something in the way Ubukata paints the scenes, moves the action, and conducts his dialogue suggests that everything should be animated. (And, of course, it is. A movie trailer for part one is here.) The author has been involved in a few anime series, so this comes as no surprise. Indeed, much like Western SFF is often tied into either gaming and fandom, or NASA, JPL & Co., Japanese SFF is deeply intertwined with the manga and anime industry.

The second aspect of Japanese influence is in the treatment of women. As a card carrying dude, the portrayal of women in SFF and other feminist topics are not things I’m normally comfortable talking about. Rather like the place of blacks in society, it’s just not something I have experienced first hand, so I don’t feel qualified to address it. That said, the women in Mardock are something that even usually oblivious me figured out. To be clear, Ubukata is not consciously misogynistic. Rune-Balot is a strong, competent, even heroic character. (Or at least she becomes so.) Men are overwhelmingly portrayed as barbarous, animalistic, and simplistic. Ubukata is very clear on how much, and in what ways, men hold women down. This is all to his credit, coming from a society as patriarchal and rigid as Japan is. But reading the book, I was reminded yet again of something. Women are degraded in one fashion or another in all societies, but Japan takes a special relish in all the myriad ways this occurs. We see Mardock City through eyes that condemn misogyny and brutality, but keep saying, “Wow! Look at all the terrible things that can happen to women! It’s awful, but wow!” I’m not necessarily criticizing the author for this, but I see a reflection of the culture that also produces the adult video series “Tremendous Incontinence.” (This actually exists. I haven’t seen it though and refuse to post links.)

Finally, and this is something I keep coming back to in my Japanese reviews, that strain of Japanese humanism pops up yet again. I will illustrate with a vague, and mostly spoiler-free, description of a pivotal scene. While reading this part, I was reminded of one of the most iconic set pieces in The Matrix (which no doubt influenced Mardock, but was itself influenced by Ghost in the Shell). When Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus, they blow their way through a faceless horde of guards in spectacular, and oft-emulated, fashion. The guards and cops aren’t necessarily bad people, just doing their jobs, but they are mowed down quite mercilessly. Earlier in the movie, Morpheus explains things away in vague fashion, saying that it’s unavoidable to kill humans that are unknowingly helping the enemy. This was always troubling to me, when I wasn’t wrapped up in the special effects and awesomeness, as we would see this from the other side as a terrible calamity, complete with widows, fatherless children, caskets draped with flags, etc.

In Mardock, Rune-Balot is pursued by people who aren’t just unsavory or misguided, they are truly repulsive individuals. Even pacifist me would look on their deaths with a certain fondness. At one point, as some of them are hunting down our protagonist, she opens up a proverbial can. Rune-Balot is a child prostitute, she’s been blown up by a mobster, used in awful ways by countless men, raped on a number of occasions, is now hunted by disgusting people, and now is finally in a position of power. Her cybernetic skin lets her sense and control electromagnetic fields, enabling insane feats of self-defense. I don’t think anyone begrudges her a chance to vent her anger on people that plan to do some pretty unspeakable things; most readers are probably cheering as the bad guys get picked off in creative and hilarious fashion. However! Her partners take exception to the brutality and Rune-Balot learns an important lesson in not sinking to her enemy’s level. In fact, she ends up hurting people close to her when she lets fear and anger take control. This lesson is repeated throughout the book, rather like how Luke learns not to give in to his hate, thus preventing the completion of his journey to the Dark Side.

As the last comment implies, this sort of resistance to violence is not exclusive to Japan. I don’t claim that it is, nor do I claim that all Japanese books invoke it. On the other hand, most that I have read seem to resonate with the commitment to pacifism that one finds in nearly all aspects of contemporary Japan. This is a country where “Morals” is still a core class taught at school, where almost every teacher is on the left of the dove-hawk political spectrum, and the army isn’t called “The Army.” (It is “The Self Defense Force.”) Ubukata brilliantly, and perhaps unintentionally, highlights the contradictions in Japan between people’s natural tendency to, and enjoyment of violence, and the restraint and discipline required by a moral code that attempts to enable peace. Mardock is plenty violent, but there is an ambivalent tone toward the violence throughout, as though the characters are asking the reader if there isn’t a better way to handle the situation. Again, this sort of thing is not unheard of in Western SFF (think Terminator 2), but on the whole, we are pretty eager to blow away the bad guy.

Returning to the more review-oriented part of the review, I am tasked with summing up and passing judgment on Mardock Scramble. Yes, it slows down in the middle when Ubukata inexplicably takes the party on an all-night casino binge, there’s an awful lot of talking and pontificating for this sort of thing, and the characters spend more time in a courtroom than they, or the readers, might enjoy. But when the characters cut loose, Mardock delivers the goods. In particular, the first 250 pages or so are some of the best and most insane cyberpunk out there. Whatever its flaws, Mardock is a massive, important work. The images and characters are vivid, crazed, and impossible to evict once they have taken up residence in the mind. This is a must read for cyberpunk fans, anime junkies who want something heftier, and anyone who wants to see the state of the art in Japan.

Rating: Ono Shinji. One of the most sublime, joyful members of Japan’s Golden Generation, Ono could have been Japan’s Xavi. He was cut down from behind, however, during a meaningless qualifier in the Philippines and was never the same. Despite losing some of his transcendent brilliance to injury, he still had a Hall of Fame career.