There is something profoundly disturbing – and, as equally, compelling – about Misha’s post-apocalyptic vision of the world in Red Spider White Web. The novel is unrelenting in its bleak characterization of future humanity, but fascinating in its direct interrogation of race, technology, and the value of art. Whereas non-white characters are often assigned the supporting roles in conventional cyberpunk, Misha places her Aboriginal-others at the centre of the narrative. Red Spider White Web is a tale of the future told from the point of view of people whose history lives only in museums and on genetically-engineered farming colonies.
In his “Pseudo-Introduction” to the 1999 reprint of Red Spider White Web, John Shirley argues that Misha’s name should appear next to his on any list of seminal cyberpunk writers. He writes: “Misha’s particular interfacing of the artist-character with the streetscene with the cyborgian meat-transcendence revelation, her operatic evocation, her bold juxtapositions, her strangely feminine toughness, her barbed-wire poetic content, and most of the all the sense of an underlying metaphysical reality in Red Spider White Web – well shit, it was just plain ahead of its time.” The novel draws on the sub-genres of horror, cyberpunk, and feminist SF, but it is more frenetic, more darkly prophetic, and stranger than any clear-cut genre designation allows.
Two intertwining narratives in Red Spider White Web tell a story of desperate survival in a world fallen apart and the longing for beauty and real human contact. The primary character in the novel is Kumo, a holo-artist who scrapes out a living working in the artists’ market, waiting among the other discarded people for a “rich suit” to buy her work. The other narrative is that of Tommy, a mad ex-agent/preacher/junk collector, whose disjointed musings open the book and set up its dark visual imagery: “His circuit is a skull juggler. He’s a factory guard who stalks the silent chemical night. Eye guard transluscent aquariums of red agar. This. This is rehabrehabrehab ilit tation. Watch out!” From the book’s first sentences, Misha’s writing warns the reader that this is no breezy Sunday reading. While the prose verges on being poetically unintelligible at times – a reflection of the disarray and insanity of the world it describes – the majority of Red Spider White Web is captivating slang-thrown dialogue and keen images of a rotting city and its disenfranchised citizens.
The plot revolves around Kumo, as she navigates a cityscape full of gangs, cannibals, “zombies,” and groups of well-armed rich kids who prey on the poor and vulnerable for fun. Someone is killing the artists in her community, but with dogged determination, Kumo survives her surroundings and keeps making her holo-art. Misha’s world-building does not leave much room for hope: people must shield themselves from UV radiation, they eat synthetic food, contract 15-minute viruses, slap on drug patches, and wallow in perversion. Misha does not give into transhumanist nostalgia or the typical cyberpunk trope of transcendence. Kumo and Tommy are ultimately alone and all too human beneath their masks of metal and cloned-leather.
While Red Spider White Web might not make for ideal bedtime-reading, it is a novel worth attention from anyone who reads SF and understands the inherently critical nature of the genre. Misha’s savage world speaks to fears of those already left behind – the rich get richer and the poor get eaten. It is a vision of a world that must not come to be. I’ve wanted to write about Red Spider White Web for a long time. It has taken two years for me to revisit it. A good story stays with you and Misha’s Red Spider White Web refuses to leave easily.