Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan

Dossier: Cadigan, Pat. Mindplayers (Bantam Spectra, 1987)

Filetype: Book

File Under: Cyberpunk/postcyberpunk

Executive Summary: Allison Haas is a lost soul, drifting through life and seeking cheap thrills in illegal "madcaps"--cybernetic modules that induce temporary psychosis. But when the psychosis sticks, her friend and dealer, Jerry Wirerammer, drops her off at a "dry cleaner." The Brain Police are alerted, and both Allie and Jerry look headed for identity erasing. But Allie is offered a deal instead: train to be a mindplayer--a person who helps others navigate their psyche on a virtualized plane, as therapy or pastime--and all will be forgiven. So Allie takes the deal and becomes a mindplayer. 

After this, the book recounts a series of vignettes--of Allie's training and her various mindplay contracts.

High-Tech: Mindplay is facilitated by a device that links into the optic nerve. How the device works, beyond that, isn't explained in much detail, though in essence it separates the mind into a space to be traversed and a traveler to traverse it. Trained mindplayers, moreover, can enter another person's mind-field and help them achieve whatever goals they have set out for themselves. 

There are several kinds of mindplayers: pathos finders, who help individuals find their "calling"; fetishizers, who create fantasy trips; neurosis peddlers, who help individuals develop productive neuroses; bell jarers, who impose mind silence and allow individuals to recover from the effects of too much mindplay; and so forth. 

There are also artificial intelligences, or virtual personality constructs--it's never quite clear how autonomous or sentient they are. And most people have artificial eyes, because the mindplay interface causes trauma on natural eyes. 

Notably, Mindplayers also feels much less dated than the bulk of cyberpunk. Aside from the lack of mobile communication devices, the future feels suitably futuristic--even from 2015. There are no cringey "fax machine" or "8mb of data" moments.  

Low-Life: Wirerammer is a futuristic drug dealer, who later keeps one step ahead of the law by making illegal copies of his personality for sale on the black market.

Dark Times: Other than the Brain Police, who are sort of vaguely authoritarian, there isn't really much dystopia to speak of. Mindplayers, generally speaking, isn't really a fountain of  political commentary, a la Neuromancer or A Song Called Youth, and in general the book is focused on the psychological as opposed to the sociological. This future even seems pleasant! 

Legacy: Mindplayers is either the final major work of cyberpunk or the first major work of postcyberpunk. Cadigan is rightly identified as part of the core of first-wave practitioners, and her short fiction was instrumental in shaping the style. Mindplayers, though, feels like a departure from the precedent set by earlier first-wave novels, and dispenses with the tropes and aesthetics that initially made cyberpunk feel vital and new, but by 1987 had begun to frustrate the style's progenitors. So in that sense, Mindplayers feels like a bridge between the other first-wave works and postcyberpunk classics like Snow Crash and Fools (which Cadigan set in the same future as Mindplayers). 

In Retrospect: Mindplayers is a difficult book to review because of the way the narrative drifts--much as Allie is said to drift before her training as a mindplayer, and as she clearly continues to do afterwards. In other words, this is a book that isn't so much about something as it is about someone, i.e Allie, and things that happen to her in sequence. It works because Allie is a strong character, the world is fascinating, and the book is elegantly written, engaging and thoughtful. 

At times I found myself thinking of Neuromancer, because Mindplayers, like Gibson's masterpiece, both is and transcends genre. Yet they are, in style and approach, strikingly unlike one another. Whereas Neuromancer is all hard surfaces and sharp angles, Mindplayers is elusive--almost ethereal. It is, as noted above, a novel of the mind and what might be possible if you could traverse it. And it's one I think any fan of literary science fiction should read.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 8/10