I feel conflicted about rating this on Goodreads. I’d like to make it 3.5 – I’m such a sucker for half marks; I guess I tend towards ambivalence? I dunno…
(see what I did there?)
The set-up is great, as I’ve come to expect from a Scott novel. In fact after I read the first few pages I sighed with happiness and wondered why it took me so long to get around to reading this – it’s been on my shelf for ages – since the writing is lovely and captivating and immediately immersive. So that’s a wonderful thing and the prose itself stays very readable. The plot, though… it feels like a very long build up to a very abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. I was surprised, as I read, that there were increasingly few pages left to go and no sign of clima – oh, there it went! Blink and you just about miss it. It felt like Scott either got bored by the story and/or characters (I’m going with the latter), and just wanted out, or she’d been given a timeframe that meant she had to rush the conclusion. Perhaps that’s a disservice and she always intended it to work that way, but it didn’t work for me.
Anyway: the story has two different plots that end up entangled. In one, Ista lives on a station owned and run by the Night Sky Mine Company, and she’s learning to be a hypothecary – someone who deals with what we would call the virtual world. There are safe nets, controlled by companies and governments, and then there are the wildnets – where anything might develop. Programs are flora – basically immobile – or fauna; Scott has developed an awesome nomenclature that give teasing hints as to characteristics of these programs (chogets and hug-me-tights and walaroo…). That was the aspect that felt really familiar from other Scott novels and that playfulness is something I really enjoyed.
The second plot involves Justin and Tarasov, men of very different backgrounds trying to make their relationship work dirt-side. Tarasov works in policing and they end up getting involved in an investigation that leads them to the Night Sky Mine system, and meeting up with Ista, and discovering that they all have some common interests that they want investigated.
The virtual world aspect is intriguing; there are hints at how it developed and got away from strict human control, but nothing too definite. The other world-building aspect that is intriguing is how Scott imagines human society working; this is no utopia, although it’s not quite a dystopia either (so quite realistic then). Humanity, at least within the Federation systems, are born into quite distinct castes – Union, Management, Transport, probably a few others – and there are definite resentments towards the different groups; Union always feels hard done by and that they are always the bottom of the pile. Friendships across castes are difficult, and love even more so. And then Scott adds another group, which I think is absolutely true to human nature: the Travellers. People who reject the idea of being tied to a caste and a certain job and a certain place. The most extreme Travellers (the Orthodox) take a spiritual view of their place in society, while Reformed Travellers are in it for the movement and lack of stricture. I could definitely read more stories set in this world, exploring how the different groups interact.
In the end I certainly don’t regret reading the book. I am glad that it wasn’t the first of Scott’s books I read, because I probably wouldn’t have gone on to read others – and then I would have missed out on Trouble and Her Friends which is definitely one of my very favourite cyberpunk stories.
I don’t think I’ve read a Walter Jon Williams novel before. I’ve read some of his short stories, in anthologies, and generally loved them. Pretty sure I got this novel from Better World Books because it was in the bargain pile and I thought it would be an interesting enough place to start reading his work. Plus, I suspect I was in a cyberpunk zone.
ETA: No, I am stupid. Of course I have read other Williams books… This is Not a Game, AND Deep State, and The Fourth Wall. I can’t believe I forgot that.
It’s a good thing I have read other stuff by him in the past.
It’s not a bad book. I did finish it. But it’s definitely not a great book, and I’ll be more circumspect in what I choose to read of his in future. Probably I will ask Jonathan for recommendations. A couple of reviewers over on Goodreads suggested that this was an example of style over substance, and that this was Williams trying to be William Gibson. The former I agreed with, by about halfway through; the second I disagree with, although I haven’t read Gibson’s complete cyberpunk oeuvre so perhaps I can’t entirely make that decision.
Style over substance: there are some lovely, almost lyrical passages in this novel. There are some amusing and clever descriptive passages. There are some that are just a bit silly, though, and seem like evidence either of Williams trying a bit too hard or the editor not trying hard enough.
William Gibson: keeping in mind it’s been a while since I read Neuromancer etc, I think there’s a different aesthetic at work here, and a different use for technology. Williams has tech for a purpose, and that’s why it exists. Even the character who loves the tech and most lives for it loves what it allows him to do, and feel – being a pilot. My memory of Gibson is that the technology is a bit more… pure is the wrong word, but perhaps abstract? Good for doing stuff, but that’s not it’s sole purpose. Those who are more familiar with Gibson, feel free to correct! (This reminds me that I really, really must read them again/finish the series (pl) that I have started…).
This is a world where orbital communities are doing nasty things to the dirt-siders, along the lines of controlling their economy and doling out important things like drugs (… the medicinal ones and the ‘medicinal’ ones). Well, I say ‘dirt-siders’; I really mean ‘people living in the former USA’, because as far as I can tell the rest of the world just doesn’t exist for this novel. Just a little thing those of us outside of the USA notice. Anyway, it’s the former USA because it’s all been divided up for various reasons that I’m sure have more resonance with people who have an actual grip on USAn geography and history (i.e. not me).
The novel is told from two perspectives: Cowboy is a pilot who lives to fly but has been grounded by the dangers of doing so – because he mostly flies on illicit ‘pony express’-type runs. Well, he’s been grounded, but he still gets to do his runs in a panzer. I was a bit dozy while reading the start because it took me ages to realise that meant he was crashing across continental US in a tank. The other perspective is provided by Sarah, whose childhood was seriously screwed up and who will do most anything to raise the serious money needed to get a better life, including radical body mods and very dangerous work. Cowboy and Sarah’s stories collide, mesh, separate and do reasonably interesting things. Intertwined throughout are advertisements for various companies – mostly for body mods or drugs – and the occasional news heading. I don’t think this is something invented by Williams, but when it’s done well (and I think it is here) I really like it as a style.
Cowboy and Sarah are both interesting enough, but I didn’t really engage with either of them. They were both too distant. Cowboy’s monomania about flying – even when it begins to get tempered by a developing conscience – prevented me from clicking with him. I thought he was pretty consistent, though, and could appreciate that. Sarah didn’t really work overall. Her concern for her brother, especially, felt out of place with the rest of her attitudes. I have no doubt it’s possible for a cynical, pessimistic person to care as deeply for a family member as Sarah is shown to – but I didn’t buy it here. Especially given what it ends up costing her.
The plot itself is fast-paced enough that I kept reading; there were some nice twists, although nothing completely unexpected. I don’t remember anything that made me want to throw the book away, so that’s faint praise but praise nonetheless. Not one I’m recommending to anyone but a hardcore Williams or cyberpunk fan.
Cyberpunk. I loves it. This is not one of the best, but it’s definitely an interesting idea: someone has a new revelation from God, and recruits followers; for various reasons they leave for a new world, but this is complicated by said revelation, so original dude has a scan done of his brain and this scan lives on as a computer programme to keep giving visions and explaining the revelation. Et viola: deus ex machina where you take an I-don’t-understand-Latin stance; a very literal ghost in the machine. Now add someone who wants a copy for themselves, but that would be illegal, and… here we are.
I do not understand the title.
The plot: is generally straightforward. The POV jumps around a bit, but not confusingly. There are a few twists in the tale, generally related to character revelations, and the conclusion was pleasingly both appropriate and not completely neat. It’s closer to a heist story than a quest, in the way the Object is sought after; the vaguely criminal, or at least not-completely-above-board, elements contribute to this feel. One of the problems for me is that there are some tantalising little side stories… but they’re only hinted at, never given conclusion or even fleshed out very much. And this was annoying mostly because some of them appear, at the start, as if they are going to become very important. But they don’t.
The characters: a good variety. (Hey, I think it passes the Bechdel Test! Woot!) There’s the kinda-cops on Eden, who each have troubled/secretive backgrounds but work well together (that makes it sound like a buddy-cop movie; it’s really not); a DaSilva (cloned bodyguard) and her employer; and an IT/weather tech on Eden who’s really not sure she wants to be there anymore. The POV switches between one of the cops and the IT woman, mostly, which works well. None of the characters are especially fleshed out – there’s some background here and there, but not a whole lot about motivation or interactions beyond the plot – and now that I think about it, I didn’t actually care much about any of the characters themselves.
All of this makes it sound like this is a novel not worth bothering with, but there are definitely some really great aspects – I did finish it, after all. If you’re not in to cyberpunk then it isn’t for you, but I really enjoyed the bits ‘online’, so to speak, with one of the characters stuck there and having to deal with their predicament – including hostile programmes and the possibility of being ripped out of the virtual world, with attendant physical ramifications. I also enjoyed much of the characters’ interactions, and the plot itself: it’s fast-paced, easy to read, and enjoyable. The world building isn’t wildly exciting or innovative, but some of the ideas that Scott brings out certainly are. There’s only a passing reference, but the issue of clones is fascinating, especially when they know what they are; she’s done interesting things imagining how the law might treat them. The question of FTL travel is barely touched on, but again is really interesting: Scott allows it, but with serious physical and mental consequences if you do it too many times. I would read a whole book that set out to explore that idea.
Long story short: I didn’t love it, but it doesn’t put me off other Scott novels (which is good, because I have at least one more already on the shelf…).
So… I’ve been meaning to write this review since August, when I read it. I’ve therefore managed to get to it before a year is out, if only just. Which is good. But the reason it’s taken me so long is because there are so many things I wanted to say! … and of course I’ve forgotten most of them. Because that’s the way these things work. I did make a little list of notes as I went, so this is going to be a somewhat disjointed review as I write those notes and try to remember what I meant by them. Bear with me?
Firstly, this is a really really great book. Seriously. I went and bought two or three more Scott books pretty much immediately (the fact I haven’t managed to read them yet says nothing about Scott and everything about my teetering TBR pile). It has plot, it has characters, it has a brainworm… for me, this is like the pinnacle of cyberpunk. This is what it should do. The plot has action and intrigue and nice twisty bits; I quite enjoyed the description of being on the brainworm and participating in the net. The characters are nicely varied, and Trouble herself is complex and sympathetic and compelling. The blurb makes it sound like a techno-western (Trouble as “the fastest gun on the electronic frontier”) and while I’m not entirely sure it works, I think I can see where it’s going.
As I was reading, I had this really awesome revelation about how it connects being a cracker to gender, and how old-school crackers don’t like the idea of the brainworm because it allows bodily experience within (what is effectively) virtual reality or the internet. And I thought – hey, woman dealing with physicality, which men so often don’t do! … yeh, turns out this was by no means something that I noticed all on my own, but something that was in my head because Helen Merrick had pointed it out in The Secret Feminist Cabal… which is the main reason why I wanted to read Trouble in the first place. Oh, so meta. And so dumb.
Anyway, for a book published in 1994 it’s a bit depressing that, in this indeterminate time in the future, women and homosexuals are not still equal. Scott also says some interesting things about inequality and the willingness or desire to have the physical experience: “it was almost always the underclasses, the women, the people of colour, the gay people, the ones who were already stigmatised as being vulnerable, available, trapped by the body, who took the risk of the wire” (p128-9).
There’s also a pessimism in Scott’s thoughts on how society will view the net: with suspicion, is the answer. She imagines fairly rigorous policing of it, both externally and internally (maybe because of that same notion of the ‘wrong’ people hanging out there?); the net is scary, in need of tight controls – slowed down, checked thoroughly – so that mainstream upright society isn’t threatened.
It’s awesome. Cyberpunk and gender stuff and a ripping story. Awesome mix.
You can buy Trouble and her Friends at Fishpond.
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.)
Weird Tales sold
Strange Horizons Fundraising Drive
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Doctor Who Season 2, Outer Alliance Podcast
Alex: Trouble and her Friends, Melissa Scott; Only Ever Always, Penni Russon; Synners, Pat Cadigan; Blake’s 7.
Tansy: SF Squeecast #3, Panel2Panel (http://panel2panel.podbean.com/), Among Others by Jo Walton, Alcestis by Katherine Beukner, Stormlord’s Exile by Glenda Larke, KINDLED
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I’d kinda forgotten how much I love good cyberpunk until I read this and Trouble and her Friends. Turns out I really really like it.
Interestingly, in many ways this feels like a prequel to much of the cyberpunk I’ve read. The main contention is the invention of putting sockets into people’s heads to allow them to experience and manipulate the datelines (read: internet) more directly… the result of which, or something similar, is what Gibson and Scott and their friends are basically examining. So from a ‘getting started’ perspective I found this book really awesome, and in lots of other ways too.
Cadigan takes the ‘cast of thousands’ approach, using multiple perspectives (although always in third person) to show lots of different dimensions and angles to the story. There were times at which this was a bit confusing, but on reflection I wonder if this wasn’t done intentionally. There were quite a few chapters which shifted perspective where the new character could have been one of several, and it’s only revealed whose story we’re reading after a page or so. This contributed to the fairly frenetic feel that the entire book indulges in, which is largely appropriate given the madness that ensues in the second half of the story. It’s also very nice because the variety of characters and their individual stories give wonderful perspective and insight into different aspects of the story. Which I liked.
The world Cadigan has created is simultaneously a bit dated – it was published in 1991 – but, once some of the terms are translated, also quite recognisable. She talks of datalines and how people get their news; that’s basically souped-up data retrieval services and massively hyped up RSS readers that do the work for you. And then they use the sockets initially to rev up rock music videos, which is just such an hysterically funny idea that the sheer bizarreness just carried me away giggling and happily belief-suspended. Also, there’s a lot of drug use. Which is perhaps neither here nor there, but also certainly adds to the manicness.
The plot revolves around the introduction of sockets and what that might mean for society, with a whole lot of corporate hijinkery and espionage and hackery as well. There’s a father/daughter relationship that pops up every now and then – not something you see every day in this sort of futuristic novel – as well as, somewhat surprisingly when you see the characters, a love story that’s not very romantic in one way, but actually really is sweet in a fierce I’ll-deck-you sort of way. Plus a load of bizarre and whacked friendships and enmities that go a long way towards populating this world with dysfunctional but quite entertaining characters.
This was my first Cadigan novel. I’ll be coming back for more. (In fact I have Tea from an Empty Cup sitting on my shelf….)