Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Synners by Pat Cadigan


Published in 1991
Awards: Nebula award nominated, Arthur C Clarke award winner
Challenges: 12 in 12, Women of Genre Fiction

I have often joked at work that I can't wait for the day when I can just plug in and let my company use my brain-power while I entertain myself with a book. It's a fun thought, but Synners explores what that might really be like. What if we could get information out of our heads as easily as thinking? What if we could experience things virtually by inputting sensory information directly into our brains? For Gina, Gabe, and Visual Mark the invention of "sockets" in conjunction with brain mapping lets that happen. At first they use it to create immersive "movies" and music videos, but soon it becomes clear how much they have to "change for the machines", a phrase used by several characters to describe their feelings about technological advances.

The three main characters, each a creator of virtual reality entertainment, have different reactions to sockets. Gina is the least accepting of the technology. She is already used to chasing Visual Mark around in real life, pulling him out of drugged stupors and trying to steer him in productive directions. She long ago gave up the idea of them as a couple, but still sees their lives as permanently and intimately twined. She receives sockets to try to maintain her connection to Mark when the large corporation they work for decides they are giving Mark sockets whether she comes along or not. Her relationship to the sockets is adversarial. Though she creates music videos when needed, she makes no effort to soften the impact of her thoughts. If they want a fall in the video, she makes sure it is a terrifying fall.

Mark is on the far other end of the spectrum. He has always been extremely creative and used drugs as a way to temper his own thoughts. Now that he has sockets he abandons his body and learns to use the technology around him as his senses and limbs. He can finally get his visualizations out of him in all of their glory.

Gabe is somewhere in between. Before the sockets he spent most of his time with virtual companions in a virtual world he'd cludged together and which mutated in unexpected, but desirable, ways. He was used to his companions and the technology he had to interact with them. He turned out just enough work to stay employed. When sockets made the technology he was used to obsolete, he had a hard time adjusting. They promised him that it would be easier to create virtual scenarios, after all, it only took a thought, but he found it hard to master his own thoughts. He used to fit so comfortably into the world he had created. The creation of the world, once catalyzed did not require his intervention, just his participation. After the sockets he stood in his own way when creating things that required his concentration. The sockets demanded that he be the ever-present master of his imaginings.

What is interesting about these characters as a set, especially to the reader who may live to see such technologies, is that they are all middle-aged. They have history and complications that younger characters do not. They remember when virtual reality and brain manipulation technologies were in their infancy and those of their generation that were going to wash out already have. They are survivors who don't spend their day blissed out on their own brain implants or slaves to their datafeeds. The stratification of society into mindless consumers, renegade innovators, ultrapowerful elites, and survivors, is a hallmark of cyberpunk. In a lot of cyberpunk books, the hero is one of the renegade innovators, i.e. hackers, but Cadigan chose the survivors instead and it makes the characters more relateable.

'Ah. I thought you looked like you needed, um, change for the machines.' Gabe shrugged self-consciously; he could feel the entire common room watching. 
The man's smile was unexpectedly broad and sunny. 'That's a good way to put it. How did you know? [...] My whole life has been, "Okay, change for the machines." Every time they bring in a new machine, more change.' 
-Synners (SF Masterworks edition) pg 105

Cadigan also has a way with words that twists the reader to see things in a new light. For example, the phrase "change for the machines" which is echoed throughout the book was first introduced in a scene shortly after Visual Mark's small music video production company was acquired by Diversification Inc, a huge conglomerate. He wanders into an employee meet-and-greet to use the coffee vending machine and after a while of patting himself down Gabe offers him "change for the machines". Mark immediately latches on to that phrase and has a private epiphany about the nature of humanity as it relates to immersive technology. The reader is privy to the slow unfolding of this epiphany.

This isn't the only example of the beauty of Cadigan's writing, but it is the most easily encapsulated. I originally picked up this book because I heard Cadigan speak on a panel at Lonestarcon 3 (that year's Worldcon). Now I can't wait to reread Synners and then tear through everything she's published hoping to absorb just a little of the magic into my own writing.

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