Synners, Pat Cadigan

synnersSynners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
Review by Ian Sales

As should be clear from the cover art to the left, Synners is in Gollancz’s SF Masterwork series, which makes Cadigan one of fourteen female authors among the seventy-eight authors in the series so far. Even more remarkable, Cadigan is one of the few female authors to succeed at writing cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction which did more to minimise the contribution of women to the genre than any other. As for Synners‘ credentials as a SF Masterwork… It’s certainly an accomplished novel, and there are definitely worse books already in the series. But, perhaps, by 1991 pretty much everything that needed to be said by, and in, cyberpunk had already been said. Given that, it’s not easy to determine what precisely Synners brings to the subgenre, or even genre. This is not helped by certain aspects of its world-building coming across in 2015 as somewhat quaint and dated. But that, of course, is an occupational hazard of writing science fiction, and it’s a remarkable novel indeed which won’t feel dated twenty-five years after being written.

The plot of Synners centres around a new technology, “sockets”, which allows for direct neural interfacing. But rather than in service to computer programming, this is used to experience entertainment media, especially “rock videos”. In the twenty-first century, this seems like an odd place to put the cutting-edge of computing, and from what I remember of 1991, the shine had long since rubbed off MTV. But there is also an Internet of sorts in Synners, and in describing this Cadigan proves almost prophetic in parts. However, the constant references to “datalines”, ie, landlines, feels a little dated in our current wifi world…

All of which is to say that the technology on which the story of Synners sits – and for cyberpunk fiction, this is no open landscape but a fully-populated mise en scène whose every element is important – is not the most convincing aspect of the novel. The aforementioned sockets, for example, are all but magical – no real explanation is given how their filaments might propagate through the brain to exactly the right areas for the sockets to be effective (although there are some convincing discussion of neurology). On the other hand, the computing mentioned throughout has the ring of believability – as of the state of the art in 1991, when 40 MB was considered a pretty hardcore harddisk…

But a science fiction novel is more than just the world of its story. Synners feels like it has… too many characters. It opens in a tattoo parlour in a run-down Los Angeles, and then bounces among a dozen or so characters, before the plot finally kicks into gear about a third of the way into its 475 pages. And even then, the focus is not entirely clear. There’s been a take-over of a video production company, EyeTraxx, by a media conglomerate, Diversifications, because EyeTraxx had a small medical research lab and that’s where sockets came from. In hindsight, this is not entirely plausible, but never mind. But the idea of a company which specialises in enhancing Hollywood studio films through the use of CGI is surely prophetic (rumour has it such firms these days are even used by celebrities for their private videos, such as those they take at birthday and anniversary parties).

In transpires that Diversifications’ takeover of EyeTraxx threatens the datalines. Because the brain of Visual Mark, EyeTraxx’s chief programmer, is somewhat overdeveloped in the areas where the sockets interact, so when he suffers a stroke while connected… and he has spent so much time connected he has pretty much spread out his mind through Diversifications’ many, many computers and computer systems… The stroke takes down parts of the datalines, and a second major stroke inflicts even more damage because it manages to mutate into a semi-sentient virus.

All this is told through the viewpoints of several characters, most of whom have little agency in the world of the book, although they do have agency in the narrative. They are drop-outs and hackers and the sort of people who spend most of their time at raves. But because they’re not driven by a need to increase market share or revenue, they’re the only ones who can see what the problem really is and so take it upon themselves to fix it.

Synners is far from being a bad novel. The prose is taut and well-written, and if the characters tend to blur together that’s more a consequence of there being so many than it is of Cadigan’s failure to make them distinct. The story takes a while before it picks up sufficient speed for narrative impetus to drag the reader along, but once it’s up and running it’s a fast read. It suffers a little because of its insistence that rock videos are where all the computing and artistic rebels can be found. And while much of the technology on display is plausible, if a little dated in places, some of it is a bit hand-wavey.

Synners deserves its spot in the SF Masterwork series – not because it was written by a woman, not because it is cyberpunk, and certainly not because it is a cyberpunk novel written by a woman… but because it snapshots in muscular but well-chosen prose a particular moment in science fiction’s history. And it does so in a distinctive voice. Worth reading.

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawna McCarthy

spaceofherownIsaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, edited by Shawna McCarthy (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

According to isfdb.org, between 1978 and 2001, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine published thirty anthologies of fiction reprinted from the pages of the magazine. The bulk of these were themed – Isaac Asimov’s Aliens, Isaac Asimov’s Mars, Isaac Asimov’s Sf-Lite (whatever that might be), Isaac Asimov’s Detectives and, er, Isaac Asimov’s Mother’s Day, among many others. It’s a little disappointing that Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own is the only women-only anthology they published, especially given the number of women the magazine itself published. And, it must be said, many of the choices for this anthology are somewhat, well, bizarre… Connie Willis is indeed a popular genre writer, but she is the only writer to appear twice in this collection, while Le Guin might arguably be said to be more popular (and surely they could have found a better story by Le Guin than the one they chose?).

‘The Sidon in the Mirror’, Connie Willis (1983) I’m not entirely I understand why this story was framed as science fiction. Certainly it has a science-fictional setting – the surface of a dead star… which doesn’t actually seem all that plausible – and the plot twist is enabled by a science-fictional device… but even that device isn’t entirely necessary. In all other respects, this is a Wild West story, and incorporates all the unlikeable sensibilities of such a story. A new “pianoboard” player has been hired by the brothel on Paylay, where minors “tap” the star’s surface and drill wells for hydrogen and/or helium (the story is not entirely clear on this). At the brothel is a blind girl, whose blindness was caused by a miner on another such dead star. The pianoboard player is a “Mirror”, which apparently means he inadvertently copies the mannerisms and thought-patterns of one of the people around him. I have no idea what the setting is supposed to be, it’s quite frankly too silly to be believable. And the Wild West brothel is a trope long past its sell-by date, even in 1983. A “sidon” incidentally, is some sort of ferocious creature, one of which the brothel’s madame kept as a pet… until it attacked her. A “sidon” is also a nickname for a well or “tap” on Paylay. I would not have expected Willis to have written this story.

‘The Sorceress in Spite of Herself’, Pat Cadigan (1982), is a piece of fantasy fluff. A woman who has a history losing things has just lost a pair of expensive diamond earrings given to her by her husband. She was intending to wear them for their anniversary dinner. Husband finds out, they argue, she explains her “talent” and even manages to demonstrate it with his wedding ring. Over dinner, they discuss her talent and the husband decides it’s triggered by swearing – when she says “damn” or “hell”, or anything like it, items disappear. Husband gets drunk, she is annoyed at having to drive home… Yes, it’s the obvious punch-line.

‘Night of the Fifth Sun’, Mildred Downey Broxon (1982). In a Mexican city, a woman who can trace her ancestry back to the Aztecs lies in a hospital bed in labour. There is also an old man, prepared to enact an old ritual which will rekindle a new sun – and it requires human sacrifice. Broxon evokes her time and place well, something I’ve noticed in other stories by her I’ve read.

‘The Jarabon’, Lee Killough (1981), feels very much like a science fiction story of its time, despite being set at some indeterminate time in the future – but this is no bad thing. Kele was a street urchin, but she was caught trying to rob a gangster’s car. He took her under his wing, and now years later she’s his best thief – and he needs her to steal the titular piece of jewellery from a courier while he is travelling FTL to another world. But in the universe of the story, passengers have to be drugged for “hyperlight” travel because it affects people badly. But the theft means Kele has to be awake during the trip. And so she learns that she’s hyperlight Tolerant, which is what pilots must be… and such people are rare. Kele is an engaging character, and if the mechanics of FTL feel a bit 1970s airline travel it doesn’t spoil the story.

‘The Horn of Elfland’, JO Jeppson (AKA Janet Asimov) (1983), reads like it was written a couple of decades earlier. A men’s club meets – they are all “pshrinks”, whatever that’s meant to be – and one of them tells an amusing anecdote about a patient. There is a gentle twist in the tale. Isaac Asimov used to write a lot of these, and they were never any good. Neither is this one.

‘Belling Martha’, Leigh Kennedy (1983), is one of several post-apocalypse stories in the anthology, although in one respect it’s an odd example of the type. Martha has journeyed home to Austin, Texas, after spending several years at the Central Texan Christian Reform Camp. Her father, who lived outside the city, has died, so she goes to live inside Austin’s walls with an aunt and the people who share her house. They all regard Martha with suspicion because she was a cannibal – those who live outside the cities routinely eat human flesh, and often kill people for food – in fact that’s why Martha was sent to the reform camp. The cannibalism adds a weird flavour to what would otherwise be a superior, if run-of-the-mill, post-apocalypse USA.

‘La Reine Blanche’, Tanith Lee (1983). Having just read a number of variations on this theme in Lee’s collection Women as Demons, I was not expecting much of ‘La Reine Blanche’, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it’s a clever little fairy-tale-like story. The young queen’s ancient husband has died and she has been locked up in a tower in a cemetery, where she is to remain until the end of her days. But a raven visits her and takes her out on a dream outing to a young and handsome prince, who falls in love with her. Like Cinderella, she makes her escape before dawn, and the prince spends the rest of his life pining for his vanished love… until many decades later he meets a young woman who resembles her in every way. But he dies shortly after marrying her, and she is then locked up in a tower in a cemetery where she is to remain until the end of her days…

‘Miles to Go Before I Sleep’, Julie Stevens (1982), is another post-apocalyptic USA story. The narrator is the mayor of a city, and she is making her way to a meeting of mayors in Des Moines City. But the people in the countryside blame the cities for the collapse of the country and civilisation, and kill any city-dwellers they meet. But the cities are not the hives of violence and depravity they believe them to be. Nonetheless, in a small village where the narrator stops en route, in disguise of course, the villagers catch a city-person, and violence ensues. This is one of those stories where you wonder why it was written as sf.

‘A Letter from the Clearys’, Connie Willis (1982). A second story from Willis, though I’m not sure why she should deserve one. Having said that, neither of her contributions are the dated fluff provided by some of the others, even if ‘The Sidon in the Mirror’ doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This story at least makes sense. It’s post-apocalyptic USA – again – and the narrator is the teenage daughter of a family who survived because they were holidaying at their lodge in the mountains. Now they live in fear of being raided by other survivors. The narrator visits the local post office every now and again to pick up issues of a magazine for a friend of the family who is staying with them, and on this trip she has finally discovered the last letter sent to the family by the Clearys – which explains why the Clearys couldn’t make it to the lodge. The story keeps its premise off-stage, and handles its centre-stage family dynamics well. It is far superior to Willis’ other story in the collection, but I find post-apocalypse stories banal and this one fails to rise above that.

‘The Ascent of the North Face’, Ursula K Le Guin (1983) is framed as a climber’s diary but it is abundantly obvious that the edifice being climbed is an ordinary house – but it is described as if it were a Himalayan mountain. I’m not entirely sure what the conceit is intended to convey, but as it is the story reads like a couple of pages of well-crafted fluff.

‘$CALL LINK4(CATHY)’, Cherie Wilkerson (1983). An engineer is working on a project to create computer simulacra of humans, but the only industry interested in such a project is the pornographic industry – so he’s trying to program virtual adult stars (female only of course, this is 1983 after all). But so far the project has met with little success – after a few days, the simulacra go “insane”. So the engineer is persuaded to allow his young daughter, who is dying of cancer, to upload her own personality as a template. And it works. A child’s mind is apparently plastic enough to maintain coherency in the computer. But after his daughter’s death, the engineer realises he cannot live with what he’s done, and destroys the computerised versions of his daughter. This story was an odd mix of nerdishly technical computer-speak and a hand-wavey premise. The daughter’s situation also added a note of over-heavy sentimentality.

‘Heavenly Flowers’, Pamela Sargent (1983), is one of those rare genre stories which features an old woman as a protagonist. And yet again we’re in post-apocalyptic USA, but this time the cause is explained – a nuclear war, possibly started by a briefcase nuke set off by a terrorist, but no one really knows. Each year, the survivors gather to celebrate their continued existence, to broker sex between those born since the war who have been least affected, and to fire the remaining nuclear missiles into space. The premise doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, but Sargent handles the voice of her protagonist well, and this is one of the few hopeful post-apocalypse stories I’ve come across.

‘Exorcycle’, Joan D Vinge (1982). Vinge is better known as a science fiction writer, but this story is fantasy. A director of a Shakespearean summer theatre company and his leading lady (also his wife) happen a man reciting from Hamlet who appears somewhat despondent and at a loose end. So they offer him a job. He proves to be an excellent actor, especially at playing Shakespeare’s ghosts. It transpires he is a ghost himself, and dates from Elizabethan times. But he feels he hasn’t caused enough suffering or performed any sufficiently evil acts in order to end whatever it is that is holding him to the earth. Much of the story is presented as flashback, with the framing narrative implying that the actor has gone into politics (perhaps even through possessing the president at a special performance put on for him by the director’s company).

‘Shadows from a Small Template’, Sharon Webb (1982). Steven Gordon has lost his daughter, but the technology exists to allow him to learn if she has really gone or if her “twistors”, which is what thoughts are made from, still remain. It is, of course, a fruitless endeavour, and Gordon’s wife, Anne, realises it better than Steve does. The premise for this is nicely wrapped around the domestic life of the Gordons, a dimension more sf should consider.

‘Packing Up’, PJ MacQuarrie (1981), reads like something from the 1950s. A middle-level manager in a plant of some sort has concerns regarding the industrial process and rings a psychologist’s telephone number. A second call and he learns something he had not expected. There is nothing in this story which would indicate it was published in the 1980s.

‘Blue Heart’, Stephanie A Smith (1982). So far, this collection seems to consist of silly fantasy stories, post-apocalypse America stories, and a few contemporary/near-future genre-light pieces. Actual heartland sf – despite the magazine’s name – seems in short supply. ‘Blue Heart’ is only the second story that fits this description. On an alien world, a woman who uses the Net to manage interstellar and interplanetary traffic in the system is approaching the end of her life. So she plans to upload herself into a robot body, the same as her companion. But he argues against it, pointing out that her new body does not possess the senses of her human body, and that she will be trading touch, taste and smell for immortality. It’s hinted that he’s a local, and that the traffic post is hidden from the locals, and he discovered it by accident – and was fatally injured in the process, hence the robot body. This is apparently only one of two short stories Smith wrote, which is a shame.

‘The Examination of Ex-Emperor Ming’, Cyn Mason (1982), is yet another piece of dated fluff. An agent of the Intragalactic Revenue Korps (why the “k”?) turns up at deposed emperor Ming’s palace with a demand for payment of back-taxes. Ming resists, is subsequently fined, and so bankrupted. But all is not lost as there is an organisation happy to employ someone with his experience and nature… Yes, it really is that corny.

‘The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air’, Mary Gentle (1983), is set on Orthe, the setting of Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987). It’s a polished piece, although the prose is not up to the level Gentle reached with Ash: A Secret History (2000). An Intendant of the Dominion visits an inner city on Orthe to determine whether or not the ideas it generates deserve Interdiction. The premise is not exactly subtle, or handled with any degree of subtlety, but the protagonist certainly is. This is one of the few stories in the anthology that’s proper sf, and stands out because of that more than perhaps it should.

‘Missing’, PA Kagan (1982), opens with the sentence, “I am writing from jail to acquaint you with important facts in this missing part crisis.” After a paragraph or two, it switches to journal entries, each explaining that something is missing… but not actually what is missing. And it’s only when you reach the last line that you realise. It’s a slight piece, but cleverly done – perhaps not hugely original, though previous examples have not hidden what it is that makes them different.

‘Fire-Caller’, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983). I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s science fiction for a couple of decades. She is very, very good at evoking alien societies, which is what she does here. The Pachni have been enslaved by the Washrar for several centuries; and when the Washrar want to rid themselves of unwanted slaves, they send them to the world of Tennador, where they are building their own society. But there’s more to it than that, as Pa-lil discovers when she’s sent to Tennador by her father and master. Because the Pachni actually have psionic powers – which the Washrar have been breeding out of them, but are still very much scared of. This is a typical Van Scyoc story, with a well-rendered alien society, a sympathetic female protagonist, and clear character growth from start to finish. Text-book sf.

There are also a pair of poems – ‘Ancient Document’ by Hope Athearn and ‘Stargrazing’ by Beverly Grant – neither of which are especially memorable.

I’m not sure what Space of Her Own was intended to achieve – that Asimov’s published sf and fantasy by women writers? Any awards shortlist would likely have demonstrated that. Perhaps, the breadth of genre fiction by women that Asimov’s published? But the stories in Space of Her Own are either fluffy fantasy, post-apocalypse USA, or heartland sf, so there’s not that much variety. There are some good stories in this anthology, but there are also a number whose presence, quite frankly, is mystifying. I am not, I admit, a long-time or regular reader of Asimov’s, but from the couple of dozen issues I have read over the decades, Space of Her Own doesn’t strike me as especially representative. Asimov’s first issue was published in 1977, so by the time of this anthology there were five or six years’ worth of material (around seventy issues by my count) to draw from, and consequently McCarthy’s selection feels somewhat disappointing. Of course, without analysing the contents of those issues myself, I can’t say whether McCarthy chose the best stories that met her criteria – ie. written by women –  but I would be surprised if they did.