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.

Advertisements

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.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell
Shiro Masamune

Something about cyberpunk gives a buzz unlike anything else in science fiction. I’m not sure what it is and the only answer that comes to mind is generational. Cyberpunk really exploded when I was a young adolescent, playing a lot of computer games, dabbling in pre-internet BBS culture, and planning on attending Rice University before getting a job at Origin Systems. (Yes, this is doofy. To make it worse, that dream was updated to “co-own a jazz coffee shop in Seattle” in later years. Now I live in the Northwest and work for a certain IT behemoth, so no telling what any of this says about me.) I’m not sure that baby boomers felt the same about Neuromancer, or any of the younger crowd would get that “just over the technology horizon” sense of excitement that William Gibson and his crowd could generate. To us though, watching the dawn of the Information Age while we read about hackers, cyberspace, or AI, this stuff was dizzingly intoxicating. (For a fun counterview, read the second paragraph of this post by Jo Walton. As much as I like her articles, we have very few tastes in common.)

Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell is hardly the first shot fired in the cyberpunk revolution, but the manga was published in 1989, just four years after Neuromancer. The film adaptation in 1995 helped usher in a Second Wave of sorts, characterized by anime, The Matrix, and some other stuff. (I’m not nearly the expert I should be about this, so apologies for being shallow and/or vague. I have, however, read Shockwave Rider, so I’m no poser.) This article will address both the original manga and anime, but not sequels, follow-ups, or hangers-on. Shiro was already in the manga/anime pantheon for Appleseed (unseen, but on my list) when he took a break to create Ghost in the Shell. Oshii Mamoru directed the movie adaptation; he too is no lightweight in the anime world, so there were some heavy hitters lined up for this tale. As a final note, the English title, “Ghost in the Shell,” bears no resenblence to the Japanese title, “攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai,” or roughly “Armored Riot Police Squad.” It is much cooler, which is not something that happens often.

The first question for our busy readers is no doubt, “I just don’t have much time for this anime stuff. Which one is better? I’ve got to consume efficiently here.” For once, this is a difficult question to answer. I will give a couple of suggestions here, then break them down in further detail in the following paragraphs. The short answer is, “I can’t pick just one.” This is not just because I am indecisive and wishy-washy, this is because the two actually have different strengths and weaknesses. In terms of narrative integrity and intensity, the film is a better choice. For a larger look at the world Shiro creates, and for more time to ruminate over the questions of existence that the characters ask among themselves, the manga offers greater reward.

But because it is a manga, it was published weekly over a period of some months and is prone to wandering hither and yon with the plot. This was explained further to me by my wife last week, as she read a gooshy romance series all out of order. “Well, these things that happen are just self-contained episodes, so you can kind of take them however they fall and set everything straight at the end.” Longer manga are much bigger offenders here, but there tends to be a single, mainline plot to a manga that is compartmentalized into weekly or monthly sections. Side stories happen, characters go on vacations, some random person will pop into the story and be important for a bit before disappearing, weeks will pass without any progress on the main story, but things will always gravitate back to it at some point. Mind you, I’m not a manga veteran by any definition, but even in limited reading I’ve noticed this. I suppose it could drive some people batty, but if taken the same way computer RPGs, with their subquests and diversions, or even Victor Hugo books are dealt with, it’s not a deal breaker.

In the case of Ghost in the Shell, this allows Shiro to track the main plot, where Motoko Kusanagi and her special ops police force hunt down a hacker named The Puppet Master, but also gives enough flexibility to send the squad on other missions, demonstrate the larger society at work, and let the squad hash out questions of identity. Kusanagi is a cybernetic hybrid, and spends large portions of the manga trying to come to terms with notions of humanity, how they apply to AI and cybernetics, and how these affect notions of Self. The “Shell” in the title refers to the bodies the characters are given, while the “Ghost” is something like a soul, or consciousness. These questions are a necessary part of the story and are present in the film, but not with the shambling, philosophical bent of the manga. This lack of time constraint also gives Shiro a chance to blow a week on conversations between Fuchikomi (spider-like AI robot henchmen) as they debate overthrowing the human regime. That was my favorite part. I should point out that even within this flexible setup, Shiro apparently didn’t have enough room to get out everything crammed into his head, because there are copious footnotes. These aren’t necessary to the plot, but they shine a light into Shiro’s unquestionably brilliant, but deeply strange mind.

Oshii suffers no such distraction. He gets in and out with maximum efficiency, taking a compact 80 minutes to trace Kusanagi’s hunt for The Puppet Master. The movie basically stays faithful to scenes from the manga, but eliminates all the side stories and navel gazing. What this loses in context, it makes up for with insistent pacing, a flawless arc, and about ten pounds if style in a five pound bag, to borrow a favorite Dave Barry-ism. The manga is also a cyberpunk tour de force, but in color and in motion, the film is the quintessential near-future, urban noir aesthetic. Anything we owe The Matrix in terms of 21st century style, we actually owe Ghost in the Shell. (The Wachowskis are, or were at least, fairly open about this influence.)

The real answer to the question posed earlier is, “Get them both.” Ghost in the Shell is influential, engaging, intelligent, and stylish. Nobody can be serious about cyberpunk without, at the very least, watching Oshii’s film. I plan on seeking out the follow-ups and posting reviews in the somewhat near future.

Rating: Nakata Hidetoshi. Japan’s essential footballer as the Samurai Blue went from nothing to global relevance, and Japan’s first major football export. He played the game with an uncharacteristic intelligence and grace, and is also really into fashion.