Talk delivered at the Munich Volkstheater on 14th October 2017 for Bayerischer Rundfunk’s annual Zundfunk-Netkongress.
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.
IMPLIED SPACES by WALTER JON WILLIAMS
Night Shade Books hardback, 256pp, RRP US$24.95, ISBN 978-1-59780-125-6 – June 2008
Night Shade Books must know that people like myself – despite believing ourselves to be sophisticated and resistant to slick marketing and simple sub-genre categorisation – are actually easy marks. I caught sight of the gorgeous Dan Dos Santos cover of Walter Jon Williams‘s Implied Spaces, noticed it was described as a “novel of the Singularity”, and I just had to read it. Thankfully, this swift little novel is rewarding in proportion to its promise.
The upfront marketing makes more sense once you start reading, because Implied Spaces starts off reading more like a Middle Eastern fantasy, and stays that way for a good three chapters. Our hero Aristide is a travelling warrior-poet with a talking cat who gets mixed up in a conflict with a notorious and fanatical gang of caravan bandits in a sort of remixed Arabian Nights scenario.
While there are subtle clues for the experienced reader of sf that all is not as it may initially seem, it’s some time before the setting is revealed to be the immersive simulation that it actually is. It’s a brave move on Williams’s part – one that an author of lesser reputation could probably not risk taking – and it has the desired effect of bonding us to Aristide and his complex fighting-philosopher persona.
It transpires that Midgarth, the region where Aristide was roaming, is one of many “pocket universes”, created by posthumanity through wormhole-related jiggery-pokery as part of a civilisation-wide reaction to the Existential Crisis – the question of what-to-do when you’re functionally immortal and technologically omnipotent. Williams manages to humanise posthumans with this neat and believable philosophical sleight-of-hand, while simultaneously retaining all the aspects that make them fun to read about, resulting in a civilisation that resembles Iain M Banks’s Culture in some respects.
The big difference is that in the Culture, conflicts begin at the fringes; in Implied Spaces, Williams has the rot setting in at the core. Williams has a faster pace and sparser style than Banks, too – once we’re out of Midgarth and Aristide is revealed to be a much bigger player than was initially apparent, we move rapidly through escalations of crisis that bring posthumanity to the brink of extinction in pretty short order.
Despite the setting, Implied Spaces has a familiar sf-nal plot shape, and Aristide has more than a hint of the Heinleinian Capable Man about him. But this is where the value of those early chapters comes into play; we’ve already learned that there’s some genuine contradiction and compassion beyond the adaptable have-a-go hero, and we’re less tempted to dismiss him as a Mary Sue as a result.
Williams also invokes Golden Age sf in his battle scenes and their dispassionate mega-deaths, which are ludicrously (and enjoyably) immense; many reviewers have already compared Implied Spaces to Doc. Smith’s output, and while I’ve not read the Lensman books I know enough of them to see it’s a point well made.
I suspect there’s more than simple homage at play, however. In fact, to be blunt, I think Williams succeeds in having his cake and eating it, delivering sly winks all the while. After all, what’s the fun in painting a huge canvas if you can’t play games in the details?
Though Draeger was centuries old, her biological age was never more than sixteen: she wore her hair in ponytails that dropped from high on her head nearly to her waist, and she had equipped herself with eyes twice the size of the human norm. All the humans in her division were industrial designers from New Penang, and they had equipped their fighters with picturesque but non-functional innovations: weird frills, decorative antennae, brilliantly-coloured camouflage projections, and full sets of teeth.
“Death For Art’s Sake!” Draeger cried, the divisional motto, and her division kicked its way through piles of wrecked robots and swung over to the attack. [pp189]
You can picture the grin Williams must have worn as he typed some of these passages – because unless you’re a more cynical reader than myself, it’ll be the same one that’s plastered on your own face. This is another commonality Williams shares with Banks, these nudges and wry subtexts; their styles are very different, but they play the same game. Other examples include Williams’s deft posthuman spin on the hoary B-movie zombie trope; enjoyably schlocky, but a convincing threat within the framework of the fictional space.
As should be expected from a “novel of the Singularity”, Implied Spaces is knowingly postmodern. Williams reappropriates old riffs and gags, takes humour seriously and seriousness flippantly, tacitly acknowledges the book’s status as a fictional text within a universe of other fictional texts (naked in-genre references ahoy!) but never entirely steps outside of the pact with the reader – although he more than occasionally taps on the glass of the fourth wall and winks.
Williams isn’t just writing the disposable pulp that you could easily treat it as. The book is shot through with some surprisingly rich philosophical issues that show he’s gotten to grips with the real human implications of a post-Singularity civilisation in a way that few writers achieve, as well as working in contemporary themes like religious extremism and the surveillance-society panopticon.
There’s genuine food for thought behind most of the plot twists, and plenty of good old-fashioned sensawunda – in fact, given the recent rush for that particular bandwagon, I’m very surprised that Night Shade didn’t think to push Implied Spaces as a Young Adult novel. It’s got all the flash-bang gosh-wow and clear plotting that the YA market demands, but also contains deeper layers to reward the older (or simply closer) reader. It’s fast, fun and smart – and you can’t ask for much more than that from a posthuman space opera.