This is a stunning cyberpunk novel by a female writer, so close to classic cyberpunk (in the sense that it has not diluted the hard SF feel of the subThis is a stunning cyberpunk novel by a female writer, so close to classic cyberpunk (in the sense that it has not diluted the hard SF feel of the sub-genre) and yet so closely affiliated with its more politically correct, flexible successor feminist cyberpunk. Along with Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends, it is one of those few hard SF works that, while staying true to the specifications of classic cyberpunk simultaneously break its boundaries boldly – or rather, I should say, expand the horizons of classic cyberpunk to make it more inclusive.
The world is divided into two political factions – one part allied with the Commonwealth government, which strictly controls biotechnology and ensures the new systems are registered and do not exceed its stringent specifications – in order to stay in power and do away with potential better programs that may usurp its dominance (so reminiscent of WTO, isn’t it?)
The other part is Spill, that has decided to remain independent of the coalition, but which is nevertheless governed by Commonwealth laws on bio-tech, making it a ripe place for all illegal bio-tech and their Makers to indulge in black-marketing. A slum-infested, poverty-ridden, ugly place, the under-belly of the squeaky- clean Commonwealth.
Nikko is the world’s first “posthuman” – a code of programming with free-will that is bound to expire after the treaty with Commonwealth expires – but he wishes to live, and decides to steal a powerful program – called the Bohr Maker – to ensure he will live on. But the program escapes and ends up in the body of an illiterate, impoverished prostitute Phousita in Spill, who has no understanding of it and thinks she is possessed by a spirit.
With the Commonwealth police on her heels for a program she doesn’t know she possesses, she becomes a fugitive, and with Nikko (and an interesting horde of characters), must escape and find a way to deal with the Bohr Maker. (Of course, this is only the thinnest plot – the vastly interesting other sub-plots are left out to make it a spoiler-free review).
The classic cyberpunk feel is so obvious – the radical breakdown in the political/social aspects strongly alludes to the present world – the Commonwealth representing the “Big, bad corporations” while Nikko, Phousita and other characters are, basically, the punk elements, the rebels who break the rules, who exist on the fringes of the corporate world represented by Kirstin.
It was well paced, thought-provoking. With the main character being a genetically engineered post-human struggling to keep himself alive, it is evident that it will tease our notions of what it means to be human. But it goes a step further - (view spoiler)[Nikko’s body is destroyed while his ghost has to be downloaded in various bodies time and again, and at a point of time, three ghosts inhabit a single body – Phousita’s (hide spoiler)] - which makes it harder.
What is consciousness without a body? How far does a body determine our identity as a human or a living entity? What kind of post-humanism will it be when you can create multiple ghosts of yourself, some of which will not return to you to save you from painful memories? Or when a ghost, its body destroyed, has to merge with a larger network, so that it can go places mentally, but not physically? What is it to be alive? Is it the mind or the body? What is a mind without a body of its own? What happens when a male ghost inhabits a female body? Does it matter? Or does it matter if the mind is preserved, but has no body, and has to exist only as a programming code?
Much unexpected, it was a pleasant change in the cyberpunk comeback to see female characters of consequence. (view spoiler)[With Arif tending to grow violent, Phousita consciously has tender feelings for Sandor – she holds her own against Arif numerous times, and goes ahead with her own convictions, rather than being used as an agent to fulfill the wishes and goals of the men around her. (hide spoiler)] Equally laudable is Phousita’s foil – Kirstin, again a woman, but the exact opposite of the warm, caring Phousita. Kirstin’s negative portrayal completes the circle of breaking female stereotypes as either too-good or too-bad women.
Like classic cyberpunk, it deals with the question of what it means to be human, and the Gibson-esque issue of the merging of metal and “meat”. Like its feminist successor, it teases our expectations of one body, one mind – this is a world where a part of your consciousness, your ghost can be sent out for a virtual meeting, and the ghost might return to you and fill in the info to your mind, or might not, if it deems the info too painful for you to bear. And not one, but innumerable ghosts can be downloaded or uploaded in the atriums of other people’s minds. It is a world where one can live with the ghosts of other people in their minds.
On the surface, it is a Neuromancer kind of novel – fast-paced, full of amiable twists, breathtaking possibilities and radical ideas about the future – but it is also a deeper novel, questioning our notions of what it means to be alive, and what it means for a woman to wield power through technology. Phousita is a prime example, and Kirstin is her foil – both are women in control of immense power – and both grow in radically different directions.
I wonder what is wrong with readers – I used to believe readers will always love a good story, the gender of the writer notwithstanding – now I’m beginning to have serious doubts.
There’s a staggering proportion of extremely creative women writers in feminist cyberpunk, all of whom are mostly unknown to most fans of classic cyberpunk, barring a few discerning, eclectic readers. Wachowski brothers, read this! ...more