Friday, February 06, 2009

Hanging at street lamps looking for action

Pat Cadigan

I was pretty stoked when I found this paperback at the Goodwill for a buck, since I'd heard about Cadigan as a kind of o.g. cyberpunk, and I had recently become a bit self-aware of the lack of female authors in my library. The premise is certainly interesting: when technology can interact with the human brain, then a multitude of pleasures will be generated using that technology, and, as with all pleasures, some will cross over in the realm of vice. And were there is vice, you essentially get… social workers. Our protag is one of these psych-social workers, who uses tech to actually get inside her patients' heads. Includes a fave insight from a novel ever: that our delusions are precious to us. Personally I found it difficult to read. Cadigan's prose doesn't work that well for me, and the afterword reveals it was originally a series of short stories, which might explain some difficulties I had keeping my attention on the plot.

When Gravity Fails
George Alec Effinger

The first of Effinger's Marid Audran novels, set in the Budayeen pleasure district of a fictitious desert Arabic city.1 In a future where almost all enjoy the varied benefits of "chipped-in" neuro-enhancements2, Marid Audran opts instead for wily street-smarts and a steady diet of pills and alcohol. Marid is a fixer, always hoping to mediate or facilitate his next few months rent, and is quite good at it, in a way. Then Friedlander Bey, the city's own criminal godfather, as it were, taps him to look into a murder. Along the way Marid must become the things he most prided himself for not being, though, in the process, one has to question whether he was much at all in the first place. The Budayeen, it turns out, is almost exclusively the territory of sex-changes and the heavily physically modified; various ex-pats and the faux-couture. No one really amounts to much, however, and most are merely the pawns of men like Bey. I regularly regret the untimely passing of Effinger in 2002.

Islands in the Net
Bruce Sterling

Previous to this book3, I think the only work by Sterling I had read was the anthology Mirror Shades, A Good Old Fashioned Future, Schismatrix Plus, and his Gibson collaborative effort, The Difference Engine.4 In short, he was mainly an editor on Mirror Shades, Old Fashioned is easy to like, being both short stories and a particular good collection of the same, and Schismatrix Plus is a cyberpunkian-spin on Stapledon-flavored space opera, so none of these are particular indicative of Sterling Just Being Sterling. Islands in the Net, however, gives you a strong sense of why he was the Cyberpunks' guru-in-residence. At face, this is a story about a married mother who is part of a near-future national-level co-op business, who is selected to represent her company in Granada. Events with potential world-shaking consequences follow, taking her on the patented Sterling Candid-esque journey 'round the world: Galveston, Texas – Granada – Singapore – Africa. At each stop we are given a sketch of some new model of the world. Models, which, in some standard "futuristic" sci-fi story, would be the (paternalistic) "hero" of the story: hi-tech super-soldier rebels in Granada, a tiny city-state with the tech and the will to power in Singapore, or bigger-than-life warrior-poets playing Laurence of Arabia on dune buggies in the Sahara. But in each case these models lose out our maternal protag. A sobering and thoughtful (and hopeful) look at the future.


1 This city, but specifically the Budayeen, is heavily modeled on New Orleans, Effinger's adopted home. An odd pairing, to be sure – a barely concealed Bourbon Street mapped onto a well-researched Islamic future.
2 But the 'Net is oddly (and kind of refreshingly) absent, or at least not mentioned.
3This book along with When Gravity Fails consist of Exhibits A and B in cover art my wife makes fun of me for. Gravity Fails' rendition of Audran (we can suppose) is a bit on the effete side, and Islands features cleavage. Obviously, there can be nothing serious to contemplate in these books, to judge by the covers.
4 I have come to grips with my feelings that the Difference Engine is not a very good novel. Mind you, it's actually much better than a ton of stuff out there, and is actually pretty marvelously detailed, but I don’t think it plays particularly well to Gibson or Sterling's strengths. Sadly, I think I've actually read this book THREE times, which probably makes it Exhibit A in the criminality that can result from re-reading books in your personal collection.

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