Cyberpunk/Slipstream Book Reviews
by Mac Tonnies
William Gibson / Bruce Sterling / Rudy Rucker / John Shirley / Jack Womack / Philip K. Dick / William S. Burroughs / J.G. Ballard
SINGULARITY SKY Charles Stross
Idea-rich, suspenseful and persuasively rendered, Charles Stross' acclaimed space-opera gets my vote as one of the most intelligent science fiction reads of the last several years. Stross is the genre's wittiest asset, wielding an astute sense of history and a firm grasp of his own literary roots. Consequently, "Singularity Sky" transcends boundaries with a keen appreciation for its characters (a diverse pack including robotified killer mimes and giant mole rats), ably morphing in and out of roles ranging from spy thriller to philosophical platform. Like the novels of Ken MacLeod, "Singularity Sky" tackles big questions, grapples with them, and comes out winning.
ALTERED CARBON Richard K. Morgan
"Altered Carbon" is Richard Morgan's first novel, and it kicks ass. Boasting a labyrinthine plot worthy of Raymond Chandler, an engaging hero and a provoking treatment of the "mind uploading" concept, Morgan pulls off a brilliant debut full of arresting genre riffs. Not since William Gibson's "Burning Chrome" has an author evoked such a seductively corrupt future world. Perhaps Morgan's most significant achievement lies in his ability to bend tried-and-true cyberpunk ideas in fresh new directions. Read as escapism or as cyber-existential monologue-as-novel, "Altered Carbon's" deft twists and brooding scenery will leave you breathless and hungry for the sequel.
HAMMERED Elizabeth Bear
In many ways a double-barreled homage to Golden Age science fiction and Gibsonian future-noir, Elizabeth Bear's "Hammered" is a crowded, sometimes self-indulgent debut set in a dystopian near future. The main character, a reclusive cyborg warrior, is "Hammered's" triumph -- she's believable, sympathetic and convincing (although not always at the same time). Bear's future is less so. But once the reader forgives Bear the frequent breaks she inserts for the sake of back-story, the pacing is excellent; I wanted to finish the book despite occasional gripes. Bear writes with authentic hard-boiled narrative savvy and a command of character that other SF writers can only admire from a distance.
NEVERWHERE and AMERICAN GODS Neil Gaiman
"Neverwhere" is an endlessly inventive contemporary fairy tale told with skill and heart. A sort of "steampunk" urban parable (with nods to authors as disparate as Douglas Adams and William Gibson), Gaiman's first novel abounds with visual marvels and well-imagined characters. "Neverwhere's" singular triumph may lie in Gaiman's sense of restraint; he's smart and talented enough to know when to let the reader use his or her own imagination. This book is a riot -- thoughtful, laugh-out-loud funny and utterly relevant. Not to be missed.
"American Gods," Gaiman's third novel, is a lushly detailed and populated book that appeals equally to the senses and the intellect. At its best, "American Gods" is nothing less than profound: a harrowing glimpse into a hidden world of deities and supernatural machinations that threatens to make the realm of "Neverwhere" seem almost trite in comparison. "American Gods" is a dark book. But it's written with a brilliant sense of the absurd and eye for eccentricity that's authentically funny and never less than revealing. Gaiman has reinvented the fantasy novel; "American Gods" is urgently exciting and one of the best books -- of any genre -- that I've read since China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station."
STARFISH, MAELSTROM and BLINDSIGHT Peter Watts
It's probably no coincidence that the first characters introduced in Peter Watts' deep-sea psycho-thriller are named Clarke and Ballard; "Starfish," Watts' debut novel, shares the speculative edge of Arthur C. Clarke as well as the environmental tension explored by J.G. Ballard's science fiction. In "Starfish," Watts develops a gritty, dysfunctional near-future where surgically adapted misfits are sent to tend geothermal power generators deep below the Pacific. With taut, charged prose and a cyberpunkish attention to technological extrapolation, Watts weaves familar SF concepts into a harrowing tale of dark psychology, artificial intelligence, and the future of the human species. "Starfish" succeeds on multiple levels. Highly recommended.
With "Starfish," Peter Watts created one of the most inspired and terrifying near-futures to haunt our collective literary unconscious in years. "Maelstrom," a sequel, more than lives up to the success of its predecessor. "Maelstrom" grabs hold of the cautionary threads from "Starfish" and reweaves them into the most virulent eco-dystopia since John Brunner's "The Sheep Look Up." "Maelstrom's" unnerving depiction of an Internet flooded with digital wildlife is handled with a finesse rarely encountered in latter-day cyberpunk; Watts knows technology and its terminal effects on the human condition and wields a spookily authoritative voice reminescent of William Gibson's "Neuromancer."
Watts' characters -- from "Meltdown Madonna" Lenie Clarke to the ruthless intelligences (human and otherwise) committed to using her for their own ends -- are alternately endearing and chilling; I especially liked Watts' portrayal of neurochemically tweaked corporate savants and their liminal social lives. "Maelstrom" reads with a certain grim sense of humor. But make no mistake: this is frightening stuff, as believable as it is gripping and not for the faint of heart (Bruce Sterling's "Heavy Weather" is downright cozy compared to Watts' apocalyptic scenario). Readers will find "Maelstrom" a welcome guide to a tomorrow so visceral and luminous it just might happen.
"Blindsight," Watts' first jaunt into deep-space, ranks as a serious contender to the status of works like Clarke's "Childhood's End," serving up ingenious ideas and brilliant scenery with equal panache. "Blindsight" is an unapologetically "deep" SF novel that takes on oft-neglected philosophical and cognitive issues: What is "consciousness"? What is it good for? Is the "self" a neurologically prudent delusion, the product of a tottering "neurological bureaucracy"?
Watts' aliens are as well-conceived as they are frightening: fitting gatekeepers to an existential labyrinth of a book that deserves to be both contemplated and enjoyed. "Blindsight" is one of the very best SF reads of the new millennium.
TITUS GROAN Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake's cult masterpiece "Titus Groan," like "Dune" or "Neuromancer," succeeds as a literary landscape. It absorbs you, utterly. It gets into your blood and winds up sulking deliciously in your mind's eye. The first in a trilogy, "Titus Groan" introduces us to the labyrinthine, ruinous (and apparently timeless) castle of Gormenghast, a dingy microcosm peopled by dysfunctional weirdos and affable eccentrics. But Peake offers us much more than caricatures; as the novel progresses, his unlikely cast of characters reveals unexpected nuances. For all of the Gothic set-dressing, cryptic allusions and bits of muffled allegory, the characters of "Titus Groan" live and bleed. Beaneath its ominous facade, this is a seriously funny book; Peake's fusion of the macabre and the absurd is richly developed. Weird, alluring and brilliant.
PERDIDO STREET STATION China Mieville
China Mieville's breakthrough novel, "Perdido Street Station," takes place in a riveting urban amalgam inspired by the steam-driven London of Gibson and Sterling's "The Difference Engine," the futuristic Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and the anarchic sprawl of William Burroughs' Interzone. Mieville's sense of location is unsettling and meticulous; it floods our senses and leaves us with a delightful sense of literary vertigo. This is stunning excursion that juggles ideas with unfettered dexterity; "Perdido Street Station" is every bit as jaw-dropping as Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" or Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren"; it's mature, elegantly crafted and genuinely horrific.
While Mieville's brooding, Gothic cityscape is his most portentous invention, he conjures a suitably complex and illuminating cast of characters: political radicals, monstrous "Remades" that incorporate human, animal and cybernetic components, junkies addicted to the literal stuff of dreams, Babbage-style robots on the brink of achieving sentience, and interdimensional entities possessed by thoroughly nonhuman agendas. Mieville's macabre sensibility reveals a postindustrial urban wasteland that challenges genre and eviscerates the collective unconscious. "Perdido Street Station" is a disturbing gem of a book that takes you to places so strange and deftly out-of-kilter that they seem imminently recognizable. Essential.
PERMUTATION CITY, DISTRESS, QUARANTINE and TERANESIA Greg Egan
Greg Egan's "Permutation City" is a towering, ambitious novel, an existential juggernaut, and one of the most informed virtual-reality mind-benders yet conceived. Sparely but elegantly written, Egan's novel is a playground of head-spinning ideas that explores what it means to be human when the human mind can be scanned, copied and uploaded as easily as we shuffle computer files. How can self-awareness remain intact within a purely virtual environment? Are duplicate human minds more or less than their originals? Egan plunges into the philosophical and scientific issues entailed in his future world with nothing less than artistry. Although "Permutation City" may best be described as an extended thought-experiment, it works surprisingly well as a novel. Contagiously cerebral and genuinely trippy.
As clever and surprising as "Permutation City," Egan's "Distress" successfully weds quantum physics, post-national politics, biotechnology, and espionage. The main character, a journalist tired of producing "frankenscience" documentaries, visits the sprawling, dubiously anarchic artificial island of Stateless, where he finds himself front-row to a conspiracy with the power to reweave the fabric of reality. Egan's insights into sexuality and relationships are every bit as mature as his grasp of far-out cosmology.
"Quarantine," an elaborate mind-bender, takes place after the formation of the "Bubble," an impenetrable veil that mysteriously encapsulates the solar system. Against a backdrop of subdued hysteria, "Quarantine" begins with the inexplicable disappearance of a mental patient and culminates in one of the most harrowing edge-science scenarios I've had the pleasure to encounter. Egan handles even the most staggering ideas with the same sensibility on display in "Distress." "Quarantine" is a topical, innovative SF novel as gripping as Greg Bear's "Blood Music" or Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama."
"Teranesia" is a deceptively subtle read -- and Egan's most trying novel to date. The first hundred pages seem aimless, the prose underwhelming. Not until the finale does Egan begin to play with Big Ideas with his usual muster. While most Egan fans will find "Teranesia" worth the wait, newcomers might find themselves scared off by the plodding build-up. But make no mistake: there's an unmistakeable intelligence and quantum-era sensibility at work even in "Teranesia's" dryest chapters. Egan continues to fascinate.
CRYPTONOMICON, SNOW CRASH and THE DIAMOND AGE Neal Stephenson
"Cryptonomicon" is proof that "postcyberpunk" author Neal Stephenson doesn't give a damn about genre. The very concept of genre, in fact, seems completely alien to his acumen. "Cryptonomicon," a cerebral thriller that weds the globalized, fast-forward "tomorrow now" vision of Bruce Sterling with World War II adventure and Pynchonesque conspiracy, is an undefinable novel with influences ranging from Tom Wolfe to Kurt Vonnegut. But the result is consummately Stephenson: richly detailed, populated with intriguing characters and genuinely hilarious. Like Stephenson's science fiction debut "Snow Crash," "Cryptonomicon" forces you to laugh at the same time it makes you think. Hacking C++ code and deciphering Nazi U-boat transmissions has never been this much fun.
"Cryptonomicon" is a large, intricately plotted book. Plunging into its depths is an emotional investment that consistently rewards the reader's patience with hysterically observant meditations on cyberculture, travel, paranoia, and breakfast cereal. Strangely enough, the constituent parts of "Cryptonomicon" may be somewhat better than the whole; as in many works of its length, the "climax" fails to deliver in the conventional sense. Then again, "Cryptonomicon" is far from conventional; its era-hopping narrative structure precludes any quaint genre characterizations. Like William Gibson's "Neuromancer" or Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren," "Crytonomicon" is a book that readers can become lost in for no other reason than the author's exuberant prose. (Stephenson also gives us Randy Waterhouse, a thoroughly likeable hero who epitomizes the awkwardness and strange nobility of hard-core computer nerds everywhere. Seeing the world through Randy's eyes is one of "Cryptonomicon's" central virtues.)
Stephenson's novel is many things: stinging satire, spy thriller, subversive history, electronic rights manifesto, and how-to manual: an altogether unforgettable read by one of the best postcyberpunk voices in the business.
Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" is a cerebral near-future thriller that explores cyberspace, religion and commercialization run amok. Stephenson paints an hallucinatory yet plausible portrait of the 21st century information landscape, peopled by sympathetic characters and fueled by a headlong narrative. Stephenson excels as both near-future sage and barbed genre satirist; "Snow Crash" is chock-full of literary and technological invention. Not at all content to tread the all-too-familiar back alleys of "mainstream cyberpunk" (to coin an oxymoron), Stephenson takes illuminating detours that inevitably end in stinging social insights. Don't miss this. (The chapter on the future of pizza delivery alone is worth the price of the book.)
"The Diamond Age," Stephenson's second major science fiction novel, is an absorbing and witty cyberthriller that tells the story of Nell, a resourceful young girl whose life is forever changed by a hypertext called "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer." If industrial nanotechnology proliferates as it does in Stephenson's future, then the surreal milieu of "The Diamond Age" may not be far off the mark. But only Stephenson could have envisioned its social consequences and sheer techno-cultural gnarliness: chopsticks with embossed animated logos, class-conscious "Neo-Victorians," retromodern airships and skull-mounted weaponry are a few of the rewards in store. "The Diamond Age" stands as the best novel yet to address nanotechnology and its paradigm-bending implications. Stephenson conjures a fascinating cast of characters, giving readers an intimate portrait of a world living on the razor's edge of tomorrow's technology. "The Diamond Age" is a kaleidoscopic, visionary work of steadily escalating strangeness: a must for the postcyberpunk intelligentsia and anyone seeking a healthy dose of future-shock.
AMNESIASCOPE, DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS and THE SEA CAME IN AT MIDNIGHT Steve Erickson
Erickson's darkly romantic future L.A. has the resonance of one of J.G. Ballard's apocalyptic landscapes. Like voyeurs, we're ushered into a world of flickering volcanic fires, leaking hotels and anxiety-run-rampant in the tradition of DeLillo's "White Noise" and Pynchon's "Vineland." "Amnesiascope" is far more than a meditation on nightlife. Erickson's meticulously-wrought characters are what propels this odd, gorgeous book. At once experimental and character-driven, "Amnesiacope" succeeds in its well-honed balance between landscape and psyche, empathy and urban detachment.
Erotic and dream-like, Erickson's "Days Between Stations" deals with many of "Amnesiascope's" narrative concerns. "Days" is less autobiographical but driven by the same fascination with interior and exterior geography: an enthusiasm shared by proto-cyberpunks J.G. Ballard and Thomas Pynchon. A love story, "Days" flows between viewpoint with the elegance of lucid dream, painting mindscapes of obsession, mystery and climaxing on a note of chilling transcendence. This book leaves echos.
"The Sea Came in at Midnight" is Erickson at his luminous best. Rotating Tokyo "memory hotels," deluges of frozen time capsules, blackened satellite dishes, erotic terrorism... Erickson is a visionary writer whose work glints with intelligence and honesty. "The Sea Came in at Midnight" is easily one of the best slipstream novels in years.
ONLY FORWARD, SPARES and ONE OF US Michael Marshall Smith
"Only Forward" is a sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying futuristic thriller that weds cyberpunk with horror a la John Shirley. A work of surprising depth, "Only Forward" is a literary funhouse where nothing is as it seems; the reader's role is to hold on tight (outguessing the hard-boiled narrator is next to impossible). Loaded with uproarious satirical shocks reminiscent of Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," "Only Forward" ultimately reveals itself as a work of moral and aesthetic maturity with enough humanity to counterbalance its unbridled surrealism.
Just as surreal and disturbing as "Only Forward," Michael Marshall Smith's "Spares" is the story of a corrupt future society and one man's attempt to take on the ruling technocracy. Smith excels with the same hard-boiled intensity displayed in "Only Forward" and the story's backdrop is a technological riot. Like "Only Forward," "Spares" backtracks just when the reader is least expecting it, revealing hidden vistas and penetrating emotional truths. And like the best of cautionary SF, "Spares" deals unflinchingly with the potential misuses of biotechnology. "Spares" is alternately terrifying, hilarious and warmly human.
"One of Us" elevates Michael Marshall Smith to somewhere very near my "favorites" list. Quirky and uncompromisingly hilarious, "One of Us" takes on a variety of themes including (but by no means limited to) talking household appliances, alien abduction, memory transfer, and divine intervention. Smith is best compared to cyberpunk K.W. Jeter, whose protagonists reflect the hard-boiled sensibility of vintage noir. But it's the engaging--if not quite seamless--way Smith fuses pulp fiction with philosophical concerns that impresses me the most. One one hand, Smith's characters are genre cut-outs; on the other they matter to us as actual human beings. "One of Us" is an elegantly choreographed psychological thriller that makes you laugh and makes you think.
NEUROLINK M.M. Buckner
"Neurolink" is M.M. Buckner's second novel, a dystopian tale set in a future plagued by overpopulation and inhospitable climate. The ruling "exec" class lives in relative splendor in high-tech domed cities while the second-class "protected workers," or "protes," inhabit cheerless underground suburbs -- shades of H.G. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks. The novel's premise is less than extraordinary; the first half of the book is an often gruelingly formulaic account of a pampered exec forced to live among protes who've set up a future-primitive undersea colony and declared independence from their corporate masters.
Fortunately, it gets much better, helped along by some clever plot-twists and a better-than-usual sense of character. While Buckner's cast of undersea misfits seems contrived, the main character's battle against the digital genie that was once his father (the "neurolink" of the title) becomes genuinely intriguing -- but only in the last quarter of the book. For the first three quarters, the neurolink plot device is simply exasperating, like an unnecessary voice-over, saved only by the engaging -- if inevitable -- love interest.
By the novel's end, Buckner salvages a thought-provoking story from staple SF concerns. For some readers, the rewards are likely to arrive too late to matter. Even so, I found myself enjoying "Neurolink," sometimes in spite of myself. Its future is despicably believable, the action scenes maturely rendered, and its central dilemma intelligently resolved. Buckner is a skilled storyteller; while "Neurolink" lacks the visceral, poetic quality of the cyberpunk novels it emulates, it reveals a capable new voice.
GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC and GIRL IN LANDSCAPE Jonathan Lethem
Jonathen Lethem's first novel, "Gun, with Occasional Music," is a demented and laugh-out-loud funny hommage to Raymond Chandler, dean of the hard-boiled detective story, and Philip K. Dick, whose near-future dystopian settings remain unmatched in their barbed poignancy. "Gun, with Occasional Music" is a hard-boiled satire that pits private detective Conrad Metcalf against a seedy cybernetic underworld. One of the funniest plot devices is the concept of "evolution therapy," a technology so ubiquitous many animals can talk and funtion on the periphery of human society (including a particularly memorable gangster-kangaroo).
As a deliberate spoof, "Gun" isn't Lethem's best work. But it's an intelligent and hugely entertaining romp that subversively weds hard-boiled mystery with science fiction, and a delightful introduction to one of the better slipstream fiction writers of the last ten years.
Lethem's "Girl in Landscape" is another novel that takes on a setting seemingly displaced from a Philip K. Dick story. While "Gun, with Occasional Music" fused the hard-boiled thriller with SF, "Girl in Landscape" cleverly incorporates aspects of the quintessential Western with tales of planetary conquest. More subtle than his first outing, "Girl in Landscape" is an on-target coming-of-age saga painted on a backdrop of sheer alien surrealism.
Lethem's colony planet, inhabited by enigmatic "Arch Builders," is troubling and fascinating and Pella Marsh, his main character, is depicted with candor and insight. With "Girl in Landscape," Jonathan Lethem proves that earlier successes (such as the delusional "Amnesia Moon" and "As She Climbed Across the Table) weren't accidents; his singular vision is taking the genre to levels of weirdness unseen since the heyday of Philip K. Dick.
CYTHERA and DEAD GIRLS... Richard Calder
Richard Calder ("Dead Girls," "Dead Boys," "Dead Things") returns to the future in "Cythera," another addition to his canon of weird eroticism and future noir. Calder's labyrinthine narrative is supercharged by an incredibly well-conceived techno-sensibility. "Cythera" is a story of outcasts, longing and the conundrum of identity--themes Calder has addressed before but never quite this maturely.
Calder's "Dead" series is essential: the Marquis de Sade meets William Gibson on Mars. The trilogy is a gritty, stylish 21st century thriller about vat-grown "gynoids" amok in a beautifully textured cybernetic Bangkok. Calder injects some fascinating concepts into the chrome-and-silicon turf of post-"Blade Runner" science fiction, including a bizarre nanotech sexuality. Calder's Thailand sometimes makes William Burroughs' Interzone look like Romper Room in comparison. Not for the squeamish.
TOWARD THE END OF TIME John Updike
"Toward the End of Time" is an extraordinary novel of the day after tomorrow. A nuclear exchange with China has left the New England landscape scarred, a strain of metallic creatures heralds an emerging ecology unlike any in the planet's history, and a ghostly alien artifact hovers in the sky, defying attempts at explanation. Updike brilliantly weaves his science fiction elements into his novel's narrative surround, conjuring a sense of deep mystery. Best of all, "Toward the End of Time" is related in completely human terms; the novel's center of gravity is somewhere between the main character's psyche and the subtle strangeness of Updike's future world, which is precisely where it should be. Updike's detour into speculative fiction is a unique and rewarding experience. Highly recommended.
I WHO HAVE NEVER KNOWN MEN Jacqueline Harpman
Recently translated, Harpman's disturbing existential novel recalls the more terrifying moments from Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and the novels of Franz Kafka. "I Who Have Never Known Men" depicts a stark, room-sized cage in which a group of amnesiac women attempt a semblance of dignity while overseen by nameless, whip-wielding guards. How did they get here? What is going on? Harpman denies us answers. Even after the women manage a fluke escape, their freedom is ambiguous at best, and we can only watch as they wander an uncompromising landscape and ultimately succumb to exhaustion and death. Harpman writes with an unerring eye for the absurd and tragic. "I Who Have Never Known Men" is an engagingly strange book that refuses to pigeonhole itself.
DHALGREN and TALES OF NEVERYON Samuel R. Delany
Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren" is a strange treat for any reader up to its 900 pages of chewy narrative. "Dhalgren" is less a novel than an experiment in technique, much like the cut-up efforts of William Burroughs. Superficially, "Dhalgren" tells the story of an amnesiac protagonist who finds an identity of sorts amidst the corrupt and tantalizingly beautiful ruins of a fictional city that has isolated itself from the rest of the United States. Delany's city is the book's central character: restless and inundated with paranoia; the nature of its cataclysm is never divulged. Meanwhile, Delany explores sexuality, race and fame with rare candor, and we learn to accept Delany's experimental necropolis as the enigma it is.
"Tales of Neveryon," the first volume in a sequence of fantasy novels, is mired in Delany's fixations with narrative structure and eroticism, resulting in a novel that reads partly like a textbook on literary theory and gender studies. "Tales of Neveryon" is intriguing, well-written and even insightful. But it reads with an off-setting sense of self-consciousness and pretension that not even its bloody, swash-buckling climax can quite abolish, and it's difficult to view the central character as anything other than the author's eroticized alter-ego. While academics have embraced Delany's meditations on symbols, language, economics and sex, "Tales of Neveryon" left me numb. Arguing the merits of Delany's faux-mythology will likely turn out to be a dependable theme for postmodern literary theses. But as literature, "Tales of Neveryon" is peculiarly soulless.
NOIR K.W. Jeter
"Noir," Jeter's first stand-alone book in several years, is a suffocatingly oppressive story of sexual angst in a wrecked future world. Jeter is a master of taking present trends to horrific extremes and "Noir" allows him to indulge his inner sadist in clever (and sometimes hilarious) ways. "Noir" is an extrapolative masterpiece that makes up for in visceral detail and style what it ultimately lacks in story (true to its title, "Noir" is a recycled hard-boiled satire, clothed in an aesthetic that's equal parts William Gibson and William Burroughs). "Noir" is a nauseatingly rich dive into collective urban nightmare. Also by Jeter: "The Glass Hammer," "Farewell Horizontal," "Infernal Devices" and "Wolf Flow."
THE SILICON MAN and PROTEKTOR Charles Platt
Charles Platt has written a number of interesting SF novels, and "The Silicon Man" stands as his most accomplished work: the fiction equivalent of Hans Moravec's "Robot." Platt's near-future is close-to-home and ultimately inspiring. "The Silicon Man" succeeds as a gritty piece of technological extrapolation, pursuing humanity's future with intelligence and insight.
Platt's "Protektor" is a far-future detective story that reads something like "Neuromancer" as conceived by Isaac Asimov. Set in an interstellar society where computers have assumed a kind of benign dictatorship, Platt's brisk hommage to Alfred Bester and other pulp visionaries is a fast, fun read by an author who knows the genre as well as anyone. Don't miss "Free Zone" (below).
RIBOFUNK Paul Di Filippo
Di Filippo's "Ribofunk" consists of a series of loosely connected stories and vignettes that depict a future world where biotechnology has become as ubiquitous as electonics are today. "Ribofunk" addresses the plight of "splices"--genetically engineered beings whose DNA is less than fifty-percent human--and their uneasy coexistence with both humans and artificial intelligences. While the narrative arc of the stories is sometimes uneven, Di Filippo's future society is wacky and inventive, with the most important and defining moment saved for the very end. Fans of Rudy Rucker should find "Ribofunk" a worthwhile side-trip.
STATIONS OF THE TIDE Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick ("In the Drift," "Vacuum Flowers") is one of SF's premier surrealists, and "Stations of the Tide" captures his imagination on overdrive. Set on a planet subject to devastating floods, a lone figure known only as "the bureaucrat" seeks out an enigmatic magician in a race against time. Strange and atmospheric, "Stations of the Tide" conveys a dreamy futuristic milieu that's part Frank Herbert and part Franz Kafka.
QUEEN CITY JAZZ Kathleen Ann Goonan
Kathleen Ann Goonan's debut cyberpunk outing features some of the most inventive and surreal scenery since Greg Bear's "Blood Music." Unfortunately, "Queen City Jazz" boasts a fragmented and uninteresting storyline that toys with the reader's expectations in the worst of all possible ways. The characters in "Queen City Jazz" are a bland and uninspired bunch, up to and including Verity, the heroine committed to unraveling the nanotech apocalypse that's rendered cities into Dali-esque foliage tended by monstrous genetically engineered bees. Goonan delights in name-dropping, summoning figures from literary and musical history to shed light on her nightmare future society; this practice quickly becomes condescending and contrived. (Along the way, we meet the neurochemically resurrected Billie Holiday, Allen Ginsburg [sic] and Walt Whitman.)
"Queen City Jazz" reads with all the excitement of a low-budget video role-playing game. The reader's job is to tag along with Verity while she collects "plot coupons" in order to advance to the next level of personal enlightenment. But the payback is scant, and not even Goonan's arsenal of weird future technology is enough to save "Queen City Jazz" from succumbing to narrative quicksand. (Amazingly enough, this book has two sequels.)
THE GOLD COAST and A SHORT, SHARP SHOCK Kim Stanley Robinson
"The Gold Coast" is an impressively crafted novel of life in the concrete landscape of early 21st century California (one in a loose trilogy that includes "The Wild Shore"). Robinson succeeds in probing the interface between character and setting: a tough balancing act that falls flat in the hands of lesser authors. Robinson's future is panoramic and oppressively real. His characters--a disparate bunch including a disillusioned poet, a defense industry technician, a nomadic surfer, and an endearing drug dealer who throws cool parties--lead convincing lives and think convincing thoughts. "The Gold Coast" is a model speculative novel that challenges the depth and emotional versatility of the genre.
"A Short, Sharp Shock" is just that: a slim, effective book that finds Robinson at home in the very uncharacteristic role of surrealist. An amnesiac man and woman wash ashore a mysterious, globe-girdling landmass called the "spine" and struggle for their lives and identities. Robinson weaves erotic fantasy and magic realism into his story; the result is a captivating departure from his longer works that recalls novels such as Michael Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide."
V. and VINELAND Thomas Pynchon
Read "V.," Thomas Pynchon's first novel, because it's weird and unsettling: a fevered plunge into secret history and urban mythology that leaves readers pitted against the multiplex strangeness of postmodern existence. Pynchon introduces us to the enigmatic and obsessive Stencil, whose quest to find the quasi-mythical, synchronistic V. (whatever or whoever it/she is) leads him on a bizarre trans-temporal journey. Like the books of Tom Robbins or Don DeLillo's "White Noise," "V." is intricate, challenging and uniquely hilarious.
Pynchon's "Vineland" is a harrowing and cerebral novel, multilayered and irresistably colorful in scope and vision. "Vineland" is crafted with a sweeping flourish of character and humanity, all darkened by the ever-present threat of unimaginable menace (Zoyd Wheeler's skyjacking encounter is but one paranoid gem). If you've grown tired of literary cliches and tired plots, "Vineland" is the perfect antidote; like "V.," it's demanding but worth the intellectual investment.
HARDWIRED Walter Jon Williams
"Hardwired" is a pulse-pounding romp through a bleakly cyberpunk future. Pilots are linked to their craft by Gibson-esque brain implants, and the world's postindustrial might is controlled from the safety of orbit by conniving multinational corporations. Williams does an excellent job of introducing us to his central characters (a surgically enhanced prostitute/assassin and an angst-ridden ex-fighter jock), lending his apocalyptic future world an effective dose of humanity. "Hardwired" is a bloody and suspenseful novel graced by a supersonic plot and a host of memorable characters; I'm surprised no one's bought the movie rights.
VURT Jeff Noon
Noon's debut is a colorful and becomingly psychedelic near-future adventure story. "Vurt," we soon find out, is an abbreviation for "virtual." A great deal of the novel is spent in this state, accessed by masticating chemically processed "feathers" that come in all variety of color schemes: some harmless escapism, others quite deadly. "Vurt" has all the nuances of a fairy tale: "Neuromancer" as written by the Grimm brothers. And while it's difficult to take much more than a passing interest in Noon's cast of junky heroes, "Vurt" can be appreciated as a meditation on influences. Unfortunately, "Vurt" lacks William Burroughs' virulent wit. But instead of steeping itself in style for the sake of style, "Vurt" opts for a delusional playfulness that will intrigue even jaded cyberpunks.
WHITE NOISE Don DeLillo
DeLillo treats us to a surrealistic suburban fable, a love story, an existentialist discourse and a chillingly plausible science fiction yarn, all in the same book. "White Noise" is the quintessential postmodern novel, with a likeable hero who makes the subject matter (death, the "waves and radiation" of the popular media) involving and immediate. DeLillo writes with a high-resolution eye for detail and a firm grasp of character; Jack Gladney's heady discussions with his Elvis-teaching fellow professor are particularly interesting. This is a rare, moving novel every bit as topical as it is bizarre.
CAUGHT IN A STILL PLACE Jonathan Lerner
Jonathan Lerner's first novel, "Caught in a Still Place," is a post-apocalyptic romance as achingly sad as Nevil Shute's "On the Beach" and as weirdly convincing as J.G. Ballard's "The Wind from Nowhere." Left in balmy limbo after an unspecified ecological cataclysm, the survivors of a forgotten Florida coastal town eke out a fragile existence among the empty houses and beaches. But although their world has been irrevocably transformed, they're burdened by the passions and quirks of their former selves.
Beautifully told from the viewpoint of Julian, a man recovering from (or perhaps succumbing to) the loss of a lover, "Caught in a Still Place" succeeds in its balance between flawed humanity and its nightmare depiction of a world stripped of normality. Lerner's novel is bleakly cautionary but suffused with an uncanny optimism, however wry or elusive. "Caught in a Still Place" is a moving contribution to the eco-dystopian canon.
Check your local library or used-book store for the following...
FREE ZONE Charles Platt
"Free Zone" is a frenetic send-up of the science fiction genre, cramming together Atlantis, time travel, barbarians, robots, astral travel and quantum physics into a great story that I digested in one sitting. More than a great farce, "Free Zone" is an important cyberpunk document in its own right; its libertarian bent is nicely conveyed, and the near-future it anticipates resonates with optimism. This is a fast, fun, intelligent book in a genre with too few laughs.
GOOD NEWS FROM OUTER SPACE John Kessel
The year is 1999 and America is a splintered miasma of millennial hysteria as UFO reports escalate and the nation sacrifices rational thought to a charismatic TV evangelist. What is actually happening? Are some of the UFO stories for real? Is the world really going to end or is the turn of the century the pawn in yet another far-flung media extravaganza? Kessel's book is funny, sincere and suspenseful. Designer viruses. Shape-shifting aliens hiding is restroom stalls. Christian Fundamentalists beating themselves into orgasmic stupor as they await the mothership. 1999 may be over, but Kessel's bizarre vision seems right on time.
WILDLIFE James Patrick Kelly
A winning novel by the author of "Look into the Sun," "Wildlife" is a clever "fix-up" novel comprised from various short stories. The result is a fragmented but absorbing literary landscape as ontologically disorienting as "Neuromancer" or Bruce Sterling's "Holy Fire." Kelly mixes Stonehenge, cryonic suspension, spice migration and biotechnology into a vision that's singular and urgent and surprisingly human; his world has that lived-in aspect I appreciate so much in imagined futures...and what a future this is.
METROPHAGE and KAMIKAZE L'AMOUR Richard Kadrey
"Metrophage" is one of the quintessential 1980s cyberpunk novels, a gritty acid-trip through an ultraviolent L.A. where nothing is what it seems. "Metrophage" first appeared as one of the highly influential New Ace Specials, edited by Terry Carr (who died during the preparation of Kadrey's first novel, passing the introductory crown to veteran cyberpunk Rudy Rucker). Alongside novels such as "Neuromancer" and Lewis Shiner's debut novel "Frontera," "Metrophage" helped establish the cyberpunk aesthetic: relentless, paranoid and playfully cynical.
Kadrey's mesmerizing second novel, "Kamikaze L'Amour" is a surreal (and distinctly Ballardian) account of synesthesia and mutant desire set in the jungle-choked ruins of L.A. While "Metrophage" is deliberately brash and plentifully laced with the literary equivalent of mescaline, "Kamikaze L'Amour" is more subdued and reflective. Both of Kadrey's novels share the commendable desire to see circumstances to terminal extremes.
FRONTERA Lewis Shiner
Shiner's debut novel, like Kadrey's "Metrophage," is a model cyberpunk novel: gritty, honest and well-written. Shiner imagines an extinct national space program revived by a multinational corporation, ostensibly to rescue the survivors of a failed Mars settlement. But as in any good noir tale, the mission's ultimate agenda is far scarier. Shiner's future world possesses a desperate realism so palpable you might even want to go there--but almost certainly not to stay.