Posts Tagged ‘mirrorshades’
‘Preface’ by Bruce Sterling
‘The Gernsback Continuum’ by William Gibson
‘Snake-Eyes’ by Tom Maddox (Available online)
‘Rock On’ by Pat Cadigan
‘Tales Of Houdini’ by Rudy Rucker
‘400 Boys’ by Marc Laidlaw
‘Solstice’ by James Patrick Kelly
‘Petra’ by Greg Bear
‘Till Human Voices Wake Me’ by Lewis Shiner (Available online)
‘Freezone’ by John Shirley
‘Stone Lives’ by Paul di Filippo
‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
‘Mozart In Mirrorshades’ by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner
Before reading Mirrorshades I had formed two impressions of the book: firstly, it was a classic anthology; secondly, it was the cyberpunk anthology. Neither of these turned out to be true. Let’s look at the second first since it is right there on the cover.
What the book should really be called is Mirrorshades: The Movement Anthology. As Sterling suggests in his preface, this is really just a bunch of writers who know and like each other and are involved in a loose creative web. This might remind us of recently proposed punk-suffix genre of Mythpunk and it might also make us question how useful it is to apply a genre label to a group of individuals.
At the same time, the term cyberpunk – which Sterling is clearly ambivalent about – has stuck (perhaps he got his revenge with the similarly stubborn label of slipstream). As Patrick Hudson commented:
I’ve been reading these with interest, because I think that “cyberpunk” is a less homogenized form than is typically imagined. I suspect it’s not a sub-genre at all, but just a group of people and a place in time, or perhaps there’s two cyberpunks, one describing people and place and another a bunch of genreric cliches.
Let’s dismiss the first cyberpunk, the Movement, as being of solely historical interest these days. That leaves the second cyberpunk, the bunch of generic cliches or, more charitably, the set of tropes. Sterling himself seems to acknowledge the existence of this second cyberpunk:
It’s possible to make broad statements about cyberpunk and to establish its identifying traits… Mirrorshades should give readers new to Movement writing a broad introduction to cyberpunk’s tenets, themes, and topics.
However, if you can find the unifying tenets, themes and topics in Mirrorshades than I take my hat off to you. Sterling continues: “To my mind, these are showcase stories: strong, characteristic examples of each writer’s work to date.” This brings us to the question of how good the anthology is as a bunch of stories. To which the answer is not very. By my count there is only two good stories: ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ and ‘Petra’. At this point I should acknowledge that I owe Pat Cadigan an apology, ‘Rock On’ is better than the two stars I gave it. My calibration was thrown out of whack by my expectations. (Incidently I have had Cadigan’s The Ultimate Cyberpunk put forward to me as a suggestion for the real definitive anthology.) Still, the Gibson and Bear stories are the only ones really worth reading and this is an abysmal hit rate for an anthology, even a relatively slim one like this. Not that I consider either to be cyberpunk.
So what is cyberpunk? This is a question Jonathan Strahan has been asking too. He’s asking because he is putting together a cyberpunk anthology. Inter Nova are also putting together a special cyberpunk issue. So cyberpunk obviously isn’t dead, it’s just that – like the rest of SF – no one can define it.
Sterling says: “This footloose time-travel fantasy emerged in a happy spirit of Movement camaraderie.” I guess a footloose time-travel fantasy is an appropriate as any way of ending an anthology which has nothing to do with cyberpunk. He continues (rather limply): “Its headlong energy and aggressive political satire are sure sign of writers who feel they have points to make.” It certainly has energy but what Sterling takes for aggressive political satire is merely feeble farce. This is the anti-‘Gernsback Continuum’ and is devoid of all merit. Bah.
I may be persuaded to look again at the work of John Shirley but let’s be honest, when you want cyberpunk, you want Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Or do you? It is possible they are sui generis of the very genre they created. As Sterling notes in the introduction, he was best known at this point for the Shaper-Mechanist stories, a body of work that essentially leapfrogged cyberpunk and rendered it irrelevant. Similarly Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are the least interesting thing he’s written.
Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev was the first man on Mars. Now he is disabled, pensioned off and rotting away on the equally rotten Kosmograd space station. Typical Soviet political shenanigans ensue. Sterling and Gibson then spring a surprise cyberpunk on the reader that is actually pretty reminiscent of all those up-by-our-bootstraps stories from The Ascent Of Wonder. It is also pretty naff.
This is only di Filippo’s third published story (he must have literally hundreds now) and it shows. The style is much blander than we are used to from di Filippo, there is no sign of his trademark wit and the plot is just ridiculous.
After gargoyles and mermaids, this sounds much more like it. Freezone! It conjures up unfettered capitalism with a seamy underbelly. So it is a bit of a surprise to discover that the protagonist, Rick Rickenharp, is your dad.
First though, we have several pages of dire infodumping. Here is a particularly bad example:
The company that bought Disneyland and Disneyworld and Disneyworld II – all three of which had closed in the wake of the CSD: the Computer Storage Depression. Also called the Dissolve Depression.
Once this is painful scene-setting is dispensed with we are introduced to Rickenharp. He wears a fifty year old leather jacket alledgedly owned by John Cale (yeah, right), blue jeans, Harley Davidson boots and shades. “And he did all this because it was gratingly unfashionable.” It is certainly grating. Rickenharp is in a rock band, a rock band called Rickenharp, a rock band that plays proper rock. None of this modern flare or minimomo rubbish.
One of the first bits of advice aspiring writers are given is not to write about writing. Shirley has been in several bands, variously described on the internet as punk, post-punk and (alarmingly) post-punk-funk, and I kinda wish someone had given him similar advice about not writing about music. Shirley’s love of his subject matter and his lack of skill combine to form a frankly sickening narrative voice:
Without consciously knowing it, Rickenharp was moving to the music. Not too much. Not in the pushy, look-at-me way that some performers had. The way they had of trying to force enthusiasm from the audience, every move looking artificial.
No, Rickenharp was a natural. The music flowed through him physically, unimpeded by anxieties or ego knots. His ego was there; it was the fuel for his personal Olympian torch. But it was as immaculate as a pontiff’s robes.
I was cringing as I typed that. There are still 24 pages to go but I am going to pause here because I can’t take any more for the moment.
Okay, I’m back. Unfortunately that breather didn’t work very well because I still had to return to the story and find, on the very next page, this:
And like a horniness it had built up in them, like sexual energy, dammed behind their private resentments; and now it was pouring through the dam, and the band shook with the release of it as Rickenharp thundered into his progression and began to sing…
The audience stared at him with insistent hostility, but Rickenharp liked it when the girl played pretend-to-rape-me. Force it into their ears, man.
It is hard to top a line as profoundly awful as “and like a horniness” but making the metaphor all rapey certainly does the trick. Congratulations, Shirley. There then follows a pointless, jammed in interview fragment and a meeting with Dick van Dyke: “Oi sawr you at Stone’enge five years ago when you ‘ad your second ‘it.” Stonehenge again! Now it is drawing with Battersea.
Rickenharp then takes some drugs and wanders Freezone in search of a plot. He doesn’t find one but we do get a nice trip through an appropriately cyberpunk city. After the tour of the tech and the flesh it seems that the story is going to gently fade into nothingness. Unfortunately Shirley has one final treat for us:
“And when I get you alone I’m going to batter your cervix into jelly.”
“You think that kind of talk turns me on? Well, it does.”
Embarrassingly I’ve gone through life thinking John Shirley and John Varley are one and the same. I feel like I need to apologise to Varley.
It’s got a mermaid in it. That’s it.
A load of gargoyles come alive, mythic strangeness ensues. This is not a side of Bear’s work that I know; it is sort of proto-New Weird which might make it just plain weird but doesn’t make it cyberpunk.
You don’t get much cyberpunk set in Wiltshire. ‘Solstice’ gravitates to the West Country because of Stonehenge, a subject that interests Kelly enough for him to have hacked up great divots of research onto the page. Rather than being particularly British, however, this is more Transatlantic in tone.
Our protagonist is Tony Cage and, in a nod to Douglas Adams, he spends half the year dead for tax reasons (okay, in cryogenic storage in Ireland). I spent the first half of the story puzzling over whether he is English, Irish or American, a confusion deepened by some of Kelly’s dialogue. For example, early on a young black British reporter says to him: “I say, you wouldn’t by any chance be holding any free samples?” If this character can speak in a mixture of an English idiom that is 50 years out of date and American slang that is 20 years out of date then how can the reader help but feel slightly off kilter? Is this deliberately disorientating or his Kelly grasp of dialogue just a bit off? (Given the second “any” in that sentence I would suggest the latter.)
Eventually it becomes clear that Cage is an American, a Cornell graduate who has gone on to make a fortune creating designer drugs. With more money than he can possibly spend, he decides to invest in a female clone of himself. This is why the tax dodge is a necessary narrative device: it allows the clone, Wynne, the grow up to adulthood whilst Cage remains in his prime.
So we’ve had all this stuff about the history of Stonehenge, we’ve got drug use and altered consciousness as a major theme and we have the strange daughter/companion/partner relationship between Cage and Wynne. Where is this all going?
Well, they get off their tits on an experimental drug at Stonehenge on the solstice and Cage has an epiphany about their relationship. So it is all flagged up and neatly brought together but it is very hard to care. Cage engenders no empathy so I was unable to be moved by his personal revelation and the story larded with a lot of unnecessary baggage. For example, there is also absolutely no reason for Stonehenge to play such a central role. Cage’s interest is never explained so it is left to the reader to assume that Kelly had a nice holiday there once.
Incidently, this is the second story in the anthology to visit Battersea. Who knew it was the home away from home for cyberpunks?
An odd one, this. This is how Sterling fingers Laidlaw too, suggesting he stands out even amongst company (the cyberpunks) know for “bizarre concepts and a general allegiance to the strange”. So the story proves; if the setting of ‘400 Boys’ is cyberpunk, the mode is decidedly not. Its gonzo sensibility reminded me strongly of Steve Aylett’s Beerlight novels but without Aylett’s gift for killer one liners. It is also more cartoonish; this is a story that humps your leg rather than mugging you over.
Sterling describes this as a “brief but perfectly constructed fantasy”. It certainly isn’t science fiction but it isn’t really fantasy either; it is a trio of fables with Houdini stuck in the middle like a totem pole. And it is very, very brief. If there is any worth to stories of such length then I’m not convinced it is enough to warrant anthologising them.