Tea from an Empty Cup: a cyberpunk review

When I read Trouble and Her Friends, I was forcibly reminded of what Helen Merrick says about it in The Secret Feminist Cabal (while thinking for a moment that it was my own brilliant insight), something along the lines that women made cyberpunk very much about bodies (sorry, Helen, for badly paraphrasing). Cadigan does a similar thing here. The focus is almost entirely on the issue of bodies: who inhabits them and how much physical reality is in artificial reality and to what extent bodies – artificial and physical – are our identities… and all sorts of fun things.

The story revolves around two very different women who go into Artificial Reality looking for answers: one to find someone gone missing, the other to find clues (she hopes) about a murder. Neither is experienced in AR, but other than that they are quite different. We learn very little about Yuki – not her job, not her overall circumstances in the world, just that she is “full Japanese” and that she values Tom Iguchi highly enough to seek out the probably dangerous person who might be able to point her towards him. Konstantin, on the other hand, is a slightly more open book. She has recently broken up with her partner; she’s a cop; and she possesses a remarkable bloody-minded determination that will either see her crack cases or get her skull cracked for her. Having the two main characters as women is (was), it occurs to me, probably not that common in cyberpunk literature – and having the two be so different, with quite different aims, worked nicely. Of course, in AR one’s physical gender, and body, and identity, are quite irrelevant – something that the protagonists have a bit of trouble with but that others are at pains to point out. Out there is not in here and can have little or no bearing depending on each individual’s preferences. And, much like Doctor Who and House are both at pains to point out, people lie. In AR, it’s quite likely that everyone is lying all the time. And when you’re trying to find a person or trying to find clues, that’s not particularly useful.

The AR that both Konstantin and Yuki interact with is a… simulation, I guess, of post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty (yes really).* Interacting with it and other AR users requires a complex understanding of mores and manners, and it’s very easy to be shown up as a virgin and either mocked or turned into prey. It’s not a very nice place, as experienced by Yuki and Konstantin, and certainly suggests that Cadigan imagines AR being used for the sort of entertainments and identity-experimentation that would be frowned on, considered morally dubious, or actually legislated against in reality. It’s hinted that AR has other uses in this world, but they’re not fleshed out in the slightest. It is therefore quite an unpleasant little world Cadigan introduces the reader to, and suggests that she is pessimistic about the uses humanity would put AR to. Given the amount of porn on the internet, perhaps she has a point.

Finally, any novel that manages to get away with having an avatar called Body Sativa is pretty awesome as far as I’m concerned.

* Interestingly, the novel is so utterly concentrated about the experiences within AR that although maybe a quarter of the novel takes place in real-reality, I have no idea in which city (I’m presuming America thanks to references to DC); I also have little idea what is going on in the rest of the world, with the exception of something terribly having overcome Japan. I have a much clearer understanding of how life, or society, works in the Sitty than in Konstantin’s actual city. (And frequent ARers would undoubtedly dispute most of the adjectives in that society.)

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