Am I slightly embarrassed that a new Australian SF novel has taken more than six months to cross my radar? Yes I am. However, I have now read it, and I love it, and I think everyone should read it.
I think it was Donna Haraway who noted that in the early days of cyberpunk, male writers were often unconcerned with the body, while female writers actually paid attention to what might happen to the meat sacks if we all got more interested in uploading our consciousness than caring for the physical. Sure that’s changed a bit over the intervening decades (although… not entirely), but it’s also a challenge that Chan confronts head on.
It’s the late 21st century. Climate change is slowly but surely wreaking havoc on the world. Tao-Yi lives in Melbourne – and it’s a wonderfully recognisable Melbourne, and made me have those feelings that The Courier’s New Bicycle and A Wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists also gave me: “oh yes! Places I know can feature in fiction!” Richmond and Berwick and the CBD… anyway. It’s Melbourne and I know it but of course it’s also different. People are spending increasing amounts of time in Gaia, a virtual reality world. To spend time there you get into pods that sound creepily like the ones humans are in in The Matrix, and they nourish your body while your consciousness is having near-real-world experiences in Gaia. It’s not a perfect simulacrum but it’s improving all the time; people have jobs there and do art there and go on dates. For people like Navin, Tao-Yi’s partner, it’s a welcome relief from a body that doesn’t work like it should. Tao-Yi spends a lot of time there – of course she does, so does everyone – but she’s also focused on the physical world, where her mother is ageing and ailing, and where there still seem to be things that are worth experiencing.
And then someone creates the ability to fully upload the consciousness, forever severed from the original physical body.
Chan is doing a lot in this novel, and she does it beautifully. It’s not “VR stops physical ailments being a problem!”, but it’s also sensitive and thoughtful to the real importance and consequences of those issues. It’s not “upload before the world is doomed” or “upload because the world is doomed”… but it takes those questions seriously. It’s not “there is only one right choice,” it’s not “this is a solution to all problems,” nor “if you love me, you’ll…”. Chan is instead taking the complicated road. Her characters say yes to a lot of things, and they say no to a lot of things as well. And yet for all that there aren’t easy answers, it’s also not a convoluted philosophical treatise on mind over matter. It’s thoughtful, and it’s emotional, and it’s earnest. It’s also totally readable – I could have read it in a day pretty easily – and the characters are intensely relatable.
I loved it. It’s so Australian, and it’s a brilliant example of what cyberpunk can be today. I am now waiting very expectantly for more from Grace Chan.
(Also, that cover. Glorious.)