Tuesday, May 26, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: A Song Called Youth by John Shirley (1985-2012)

Today we present the first guest dossier, which comes to us from Jason McGregor--a longtime science fiction reader whose special interests include first-wave cyberpunk. He doesn't often review novels, though he does review short fiction for Tangent Online.

Dossier: Shirley, John. Eclipse [Questar, 1985], Eclipse Penumbra [Questar, 1988], Eclipse Corona [Questar, 1990]; revised as A Song Called Youth [Prime, 2012].

Filetype: Book(s).

File Under: Cyberpunk.

Executive Summary: In the original version (all that will be discussed here), it is 2020 and the Soviet Union has invaded Europe, but has stalled and been pushed back in a conventional war. In the chaos that follows, a right-wing "police organization," the "Second Alliance" (SA) has risen to power in Europe. This is the story of the opposition of the "New Resistance" (NR) to this new world order.

In a way, the key to the story is given in two passages. In the first, Dr. Rimpler describes the "web of conceptions" people build as they age through which they convince themselves their options are limited. In the second, Hard-Eyes names Rickenharp's song "Youth": the rebellion of the unlimited.

High-Tech: Given that this is partly a (very strange and unusual) form of military SF, there is natually some military tech, ranging from drones to Jaegernauts (giant tank-like vehicles) to gene-specific bioweapons. Given that it's cyberpunk, there is naturally some invasive, paranoia-inducing, and/or computer tech, ranging from memory reading/extraction/erasure (on to full mind control, unsurprisingly) through biometric clothes, full ID database systems, cerebral/cybernetic interfaces, and "the Grid" or a sort of SuperWeb. Given that it's Shirley, the Grid takes on mystical, metaphysical properties (the Entelechy) and there are also new drugs, "dick tinglers," and a remarkably prescient anticipation of FOX News (here called Worldtalk, which exercises some of the available mind control techniques on its employees). Despite it being Shirley and cyberpunk, a significant chunk of it is also set on a space station (FirStep) which many people struggle to control at one time or another.

Low-Life: Virtually everyone in this trilogy is a low-life in one of two ways. Either they are thieves, drug addicts, perverts, and/or killers, or they're the bad guys. Which is to say, those thieves, drug addicts, perverts, and/or killers who are also rich genocidal fascists who try to control the world. Smoke is a sometimes crazy NR recruiter, Hard-Eyes is a sometimes kinky NR recruit who becomes pretty good at killing people, Dr. Rimpler is a kinky guy whose daughter turns out to be pretty omnisexual. Rickenharp enjoys the occasional illicit substance and becomes almost as handy with a gun as with his guitar. Rick Crandall is a neo-nazi preacher and Ellen Mae is his equally wholesome sister while Watson and Sackville-West are spiritual kin to Himmler, Goebbels, et al. And there are the triple-mohawked techniki who speak in their own hyper-compressed dialect and numerous double and triple agents. And those are just a handful from the larger rogues gallery of just the first book.

Dark Times: As mentioned in the Summary, a Soviet invasion has stalled. Europe is controlled by militaristic fascist thugs whose plans for the new world order have only just begun. Groups larger than a couple of people are spied upon with drones, the media brainwashes the masses generally while mind manipulation techniques can brainwash on a more targeted level. Weaponry has advanced on a simple bloodbath-in-the-fields level and weapons of mass-destruction both old-fashioned and around-the-corner are in play. Poverty, hunger, destruction, and death abound.

These are indeed dark times. Every book, after all, includes "eclipse" in the title, which is explained to a child preacher (and us) by our friendly neo-nazi in terms that recall Goebbels explaining how to get the people to do their leaders' bidding: "You see, the war works in our favor merely by being there. It acts as a kind of... a kind of eclipse that blocks out basic values, conventional morality, leaves people open to consider extremes they wouldn't consider any other time..."

Legacy: It is difficult with Shirley in general, and with this sequence in particular, to accurately assess its legacy. Shirley never seems to have had the impact of a Gibson on mass-consciousness but is an influencer of the influencers, so to speak. However well- or little-known, it is probably Shirley's best known work and certainly merits being widely known.

In Retrospect: A Soviet invasion in 2020 may sound incredibly dated but it's not at all. Shirley began this in 1985 and, by the end of the trilogy, the beginnings of perestroika and glasnost had already caught up to the series. Shirley simply projected a hardliner reaction to that movement. History has shown that, while he missed the actual collapse of the "Soviet Union," he also foresaw the rise of the "neo-Soviet" Russia that has invaded and annexed the Crimea and is currently at work in the Ukraine. He accurately describes how war can lead to an eclipse of basic values, such as Americans complacently allowing their fellow citizens to be spied on or executed without trial today. He foresaw (or just saw) the rising profile of the neo-nazi and radical right movements in Europe.

In many ways, this is quintessential cyberpunk but, in many ways, Shirley (as he so often does) blazes his own trail. Unlike the stereotypical image of cyberpunk, he sets this story in Europe rather than Asia; focuses on military more than corporate matters; and has a space presence in addition to a ground-based computer focus. Aficionados of cyberpunk will find much to like while people tired of the "same old same old" will find much that is fresh.

There is also a welcome focus on exercise of state and military power, though the state has essentially abdicated power and authority to the fascistic Second Alliance Security Corporation (SA). This marks the trilogy as unique among first-wave cyberpunk novels, most of which focus on small groups of individuals finding "space" in societies dominated by megacorporations. This trilogy deals instead with individuals banding together to fight back against an oppressive state and the nexus of military and corporate interests that control it.

This is not a story for the sexually uptight, the pacifist, or the fascist, as Shirley revels in sexual kinks, ultraviolence, and freedom. It is a tale of sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, and mass destruction. (It should be noted that, while this work is drenched in violence, it is never glorified for its own sake and the costs are shown in great detail and with great pathos--but it is also seen as sometimes necessary and is also used for full dramatic purpose.) It is an uncommonly gripping, tangible, and compelling read whose magnificent first book (in which he attempts an ending so daring and bold that it's a miracle he pulls it off) provides enough velocity to carry one through the still good, but increasingly haphazard, final two installments.

Finally, as mentioned, there are two versions of this: the original, which I'm familiar with, and the 2012 version I'm not familiar with. There is much that is "dated" here in a superficial sense but it all still works in a thematic sense so I don't know that the revision was truly necessary but perhaps it preserves all the excellence of the original while updating details. Also note that three (at least) stories (and those among his best) are incorporated into this including, fittingly enough, "The Incorporated" and "Freezone" in Eclipse (though the latter is actually extracted from the book rather than incorporated into it) and "Parakeet" in Eclipse Penumbra.


The first book is a 5 both then and now, but the trilogy average is given below.

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