Nightmare in Silicon by Colette Phair
Chiasmus Press, $14.99 PBK, 108pp
Billed as a novel, but weighing in on page-count to be something closer to a novelette, Nightmare In Silicon defiantly turns its back on the established sf tropes and styles as its heroine turns her back on her mortality. Colette Phair tells a harrowing tale of the hatred of one’s body, of the alienation of post-modern life, and of the consequences of trying to leave it all behind.
Nightmare In Silicon is a story about Ymo, a pretty down-and-out on the bottom edge of a near-future society who drowns her contradictory narcissism and self-loathing in a haze of hard drugs and promiscuity. Funding her drug habit (and the occasional meal) by submitting to medical tests for small fees, her health is a spiral of decline. The early stages of the book depict a desperate nihilism, a running-away from reality; the only thing that keeps Ymo from complete collapse is the company of others like her. Her greatest fear is to be alone, trapped in her own body, alive but dying.
The fear is magnified when it becomes apparent that she really is dying, but a route beyond mortality presents itself – she can agree to try an experimental procedure whereby her consciousness will be uploaded into a robot body. No pain, no lust, no hunger, no addictions… for poor Ymo, it sounds like a marginally better option than the long cold sleep of death.
Phair’s great triumph in Nightmare In Silicon is to portray the post-human ascension as something truly cold, something unsane. Ymo is almost certainly not sane to start with: her disassociation from the world and the mundanities of physical life may be amplified by drugs and deprivation, but at core she is a broken thing, in need of a gentle help that a stratified world will not provide to someone at her end of the ladder. She swings between pushing her body to the limits of sensation and wishing she could leave it behind entirely, and Phair uses this viewpoint to launch scathing attacks on our all-too-gendered culture; it is inevitable that Ymo sees her body as little more than an object to be abused, because that’s all anyone else ever seems to treat it as.
The technical details of Ymo’s rebirth as an ungendered mechanical being do not intrude into the story; she fades out in the operating theatre, and next thing we know zie is sat in front of Dr. Sleep, the man behind her metamorphosis. Indeed, plausibility isn’t a strong feature of the plot in general – after such a landmark procedure (and the investment of money one must assume it would represent), it seems infeasible that Ymo would simply be sent on zir way once it has been ascertained that she remembers her address.
But so it happens; Phair is less concerned with technical truth than emotional truth, and Nightmare in Silicon is entirely subservient to her exploration of what might happen to a mind separated from its original body. It’s a metaphysical story, and as such its disregard for the more traditional mechanics of narrative storytelling is partially justified, if still somewhat jarring at times; Ymo’s point-of-view is shaky when Phair attempts to move the tale too quickly, and Nightmare In Silicon might well have benefited from being longer and more subtly paced by comparison to its MTV-esque jump-cuts.
What cannot be faulted is Phair’s unflinching vision of what life will be like for the new mechanical Ymo. At first zie is cautiously optimistic, feeling zie has cheated death, fertility and boredom in one smooth side-step, pleased to see how little impact zir new life leaves on the world, and how newly (and dispassionately) awake to its more simple sensations of sight and sound zie is… when zie chooses to be. But soon zie realises that zie has lost something important: zir dreams.
“But you didn’t really dream before?”
“I did, I just wasn’t paying attention. There was something there, but now… The best I can do is forget I’m alive. I can never really get outside what’s happening, you know. I’m always just where I am.”
“That sounds like a real improvement to me, Ymo.”
“But the feeling… ” zie said. “You know when you have a nightmare that isn’t about anything scary, but you’re still terrified. It’s the feeling that makes it that way.”
“And what does it feel like?” he asked.
Ymo sat in silence for half a minute. “Like my life is a coat I can never take off.” [pp68]
Zie realises that emotion and sensation were what defines human life, spending the rest of the book trying to reach back across the chasm zie has leapt over, coming to terms with the cold hard fact that zie can’t.
Nightmare In Silicon is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a happy story. Nor is it brilliantly written – Phair shows more than she tells at times, and hurries to make points whose impact would have been more subtle and enduring if delivered more slowly – but treated as an intersection of feminism and transhuman sf, it peers into the dark corners of the human psyche like no book I’ve read before.
The body is meat, as the transhumanists tell us: a flawed vessel to hold the fragile thing we call consciousness whose demands can drive us to the edge of sanity, whose lumpen mortality ties us to a daily animal grind. However, Phair has realised what the transhumanists haven’t – mortality is what defines us. Nightmare In Silicon is a flawed novel, but it’s evidence of a promising writer in the making; when Phair can match her ideas with prose of equal calibre, she’ll be a force to reckon with.