A while back I wrote something about Steven Brust’s The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars–an entry discussing how it was one of those books that I read at the exactly correct time, and literally had the way I see the world changed (and to some extent shaped) by the experience of reading it.
That experience is probably something that happens a lot more when you’re younger than when you’re creeping up on 40–because hopefully after a few decades of theoretical adulthood you’ve experienced more things, and done more thinking about your experiences, meaning that any new experience makes up a smaller part of your total experience, and thus carries less freight. Not, of course, that there is no such thing as an epiphany, or the work of art that can still change your life, but the bar is a lot higher; it has to reach you on a much more intimate level, or show you things you haven’t seen before about the world, or yourself.
When the right book comes along at just the right time for you, though, it not only brings you a new experience, or exposes you to a new way of seeing, but it creates a frame inside of you that governs how you see certain things from that point forward. A metaphor that works for me is that of a struggle that creates something new out of what is yet unformed; part of yourself being forged from the chaos that exists before you are done becoming who you are.1
So I’ve talked about how Brust’s book was one of those for me. Another was Pat Cadigan‘s book Mindplayers. The universe has put Pat Cadigan in front of me several times, in several different contexts, this week, so I figured it was probably time to talk about it here.
(I don’t have that cover in my collection anymore but it’s the one I started with–I wore out that paperback ages ago, and moved up to a hardcover.)
The book is a fix-up novel, wiring a series of stories together into a cohesive narrative arc about the development of our heroine Alexandra Victoria Haas, or “Deadpan Allie”, from a self-destructive mind criminal and self-defined outsider to, for lack of a better term, a healer who has a place in a larger community (and arguably who functions as part of a social control system).
When I first read the book, there were a lot of things that I found new and exciting, and just damn cool. Madness as a form of entertainment, both licit and illicit, with licensed “neurosis peddlers” and street-level “madcaps”. Mind-to-mind communication within virtual worlds, and the kind of psychology that could develop from that2. Eyes being sucked out of skulls in machines that “eat your head” in order to plug into your optic nerves. Personalities you could rent–be someone else as an entertainment experience. Belljarring. Dream-feeding. Losing yourself in a mass of personae. Mind criminals, super-psycho-science cops and shrinks, “reality affixers”. And the whole concept of a “pathos finder”…
All those new and heady ideas. This was 1987, and it took some of the compelling, and still novel, notions from 1984’s Neuromancer and turned them 90 degrees to the right. The virtual space wasn’t just a machine construct, it was a representation of human mental states. Mind-to-mind contact in virtual worlds controlled by the minds of the communicants… and in the stories at least one of them is often insane3. All that cyberpunk “the street finds it’s own uses” feel, with back alley shops full of sketchy versions of high tech body-and-mind modification equipment, but built on top of the more human psychology rather than colder technical disciplines. Forensic mind-reading. Cosmetic body modification balanced against cosmetic mind alteration.
The ideas and world-building are still impressive, if less novel, 23 years later–I’ve seen some of the things Cadigan did done again, or differently, many times in the intervening years, although rarely done as well.
But the ideas and the world aren’t what stuck with me from the book, what changed my essential way of seeing the world. It was some of the thematic content that did that for me.
Perhaps more than anything else, the book changed (and to a large extent set the frames I still use for thinking about) the way I think about questions of identity. What constitutes “me”? Where do I end and others begin? What distinction is there between whatever “me” is, and a set of memories. How am I changed by what I do, what I see, who I know, and how I know them? A case could be made that these questions form the core of the book, and that Allie’s progress along her own arc requires her to struggle with them, taking the reader along for a ride.
Some of this is quite explicit: Cadigan’s references to “franchised personalities”4 and street trade in recorded memories tackles memory versus identity very explicitly. Individual stories also tackle things like continuation of identity without memory, or dissolution of identity into someone else, but it’s more subtle things5 that really stick with me. I’d talk in detail about all of that, but frankly if you’re reading this I kind of hope you’re going to be convinced to read the book, so I don’t want to spoil it.
Let me just say that there are visuals and concepts in the book that I still carry around with me as part of who-i-am/how-i-think even after all these years: ideas that are captured so perfectly that nothing I’ve seen since has made me replace them–indeed, it’s rather the opposite with my experience reinforcing their value. Cadigan’s “eye trick” is perhaps the single most affecting of those–I’ve never seen anything as perfectly crystallizing the way people can have profound and lasting effects on each other, and how knowing people can change who you are (including how you see the world). There are others–Allie’s Pearl Necklace revelation, for instance, or the museum of memories. All metaphors for experiences that to some extent have to be lived; words and pictures that capture a “kick from the knee” experience.
The identity questions are touched in other ways–particularly interesting are the ways that questions of boundaries of identity in creative collaboration, and in relationships more generally, are handled. The stories on the whole are often classics case of SF used to make the metaphorical literal, but this is particularly striking in the collaboration case. Questions of how technology affects or alters identity are also addressed, both implicitly throughout the entire book’s engagement with different kinds of “mindplay” and explicitly in a particular story that involves a kind of “no tech” reserve.
On top of that, of course, are the characters. Our protagonist has always felt incredibly real to me, perhaps originally because I’ve known a lot of people who weren’t so different from who Allie is at the start of the book. I like smart, perceptive, creative, passionate people, but I don’t really care for “earnest” most of the time. This means I’ve known a lot of people who for one reason or another–but usually something to do with how our society “rewards” those traits–protected themselves with a shell of conspicuous numbness, or worse had all those positive traits spiral inward in a kind of emotional sabotage. And in the intervening 23 years since I first read the book, I’ve seen many of those people find ways out of that kind of pattern, “affixing their reality” in a way that works for them–some of them even adopting a very locked down and deadpan face for a while as part of it. Nothing about Allie seems off or unreal to me in light of my experience–Cadigan has put a real person on the page.
I’ve also seen some of those smart, perceptive, creative. passionate people slowly fall apart, losing all that was essential to who they were in a very slow death of a thousand cuts, and that arc is also present in the book, although thankfully not for our protagonist. No, we see that happen through her eyes, and again it grounds the work to us–everyone has had that experience, of watching someone change, even if it isn’t in as explicitly self-destructive of a way as the case in the novel, until they are no longer the person you thought they were, or even anyone that person would recognize. And, of course, you don’t get that without also looking at questions about the difference between who we think people are and who they really are, and between what we think our relationship is to them and how they see it. All of this touches a universally familiar pain, well-evoked and used to good effect to comment on how decisions affect identity, especially in the cumulative sense, and how others can change us.
The other characters, including almost all of Allie’s friends and clients/patients, are almost as well-drawn as she is, including some very strange individuals. One of them is explicitly a cipher, and we still get to feel like we know him. Even the people who are on stage for a relatively short amount of time, but who have a serious effect on Allie, seem three-dimensional enough to touch.
Cadigan’s craft–her technical skills as a writer–are obviously solid, given that she can take all these questions and ideas and have them form a skeleton for her story that doesn’t force the characters, their experience, their decisions, or their world into a grotesque form. It’s very organic, and very impressive for a first novel. Of course, craft is kind of less important anyway in the context of this post–things that are well-written are a joy, but that axis is somewhat independent from the one where you measure the mark a work makes on your life.
Look, I could go on for days. Here’s the punch-line: it’s a great book, well written, that has something important and valuable to say about questions that matter to everyone, and that rewards rereading every time over decades. Maybe it’s not the right time or the right book to have the kind of effect on you that it had on me, but even so I’d bet some tall dollars that you’ll still find it worth the read. It’s not hard to find a relatively cheap used copy–I see them on abe starting at a dollar–so give it a read. What’ve you got to lose?
Hell, if I know you personally (and I probably do if you’re reading this) and you get a copy and don’t like it, I’ll cover your costs and buy you a beer on top, which you can drink while you explain to me why you didn’t like it.
I shall now take a moment to be sad that I can’t easily point to the writers now who are continuing the discussion Cadigan started here in, say, the same way Snow Crash continues what Neuromancer started. Just a moment, though, or else I’ll start to get ranty about the disproportion between fantasy and science fiction.
Oh, and check out this post, which has a quick summary of the book, and then goes on to look at some tech that makes Mindplayers closer to real than you might think.
- Of course, me being who I am, and having read what I read when I did, when I think of things like that I always see Earl Aubec marching off the end of the world into chaos to create new spaces at the edge of the map, or Brust’s angels making the world(s).(back)
- Hell, it occurs to me now that it was an interesting extrapolation of the entire psychological/psychiatric industry that made sense before we all decided somehow that pills could make it better. Remember, this was published in 1987, years before cosmetic pharmacology was a real thing.(back)
- This was 13 years before The Cell–a movie I didn’t think had a particularly powerful story, but which I thought had quite lush visuals. When it came out, as I watched I was mapping some of the experience onto my mental ideas of some of Allie’s experiences.(back)
- Which also function as a classic satire/dissection of both North American celebrity culture, and the notions of creativity versus passive mass entertainment.(back)
- Well, OK, the bit with the Pearl Necklace and the all-caps epiphany probably can’t be referred to as ‘subtle’, but it’s handled at a different level than the world-building stuff.(back)