Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Tim Maughan, Paintwork


Three solid and occasionally very smartly-pitched cyberpunk stories, all set in the same near-future universe. “Some old new shit that you ain’t never never never heard before” (Kool Keith).

Like a few other [Goodreads] reviewers I felt “Paintwork” – the first story, about the augmented reality / QR code graffiti artist 3Cube – was the most fully-realised of the three. Its protagonist has some substance, & the tale is efficiently composed; the standard (hard)boiler-plate cyberpunk voice is all about shifting between terse, minimalist grace, and dense, brand-studded and globe-encompassing spikiness (whilst provocatively denying the reality of those shifts: almost like, “What? I had to mention what brand of Korean trainers; it was an indivisible fundamental particle of narrativium. WHAT?”), and “Paintwork” does that well.

But there are also more moments of lyrical wit here – e.g. the toothpaste thumbprint, or the three Adidas stripes unrolling back through time across the arms and legs of generations of dodgy geezers. I remember hearing that the architects of classic cyberpunk used to compete over who could cram the most information into a sentence (true, @Cadigan, @GreatDismal, @Bruces?). Perhaps one of the formal resources cyberpunk also affords is the capacity to play with what *counts* as information. It’s often through the joke, the clinamen, the unaccountable collocation, the pointless, aptly-chosen and never-properly-explained detail, the figure of speech (I liked “red carpet designer arrogance”) or the slightly whimsical and superfluous conceit (like those shelly three-stripes) that cyberpunk’s intelligence really comes squirting out. (Incidentally, it’s probably out of this stuff that the most strollably-cartilaginous ligatures form with quasi-cyberpunks like Murakumi, Pynchon, Aylett).

The last two stories are more closely linked by the appearance of celebrity gamer Leo Kim. There are shades here of Gibson & Swanwick’s “Dogfight” (collected in *Burning Chrome*). “Paparazzi” felt a bit off-balance; after a fairly elaborate set-up, we go in-game, & I expected to be solicited to invest myself in a bit of semi-gratuitous swords & sorcery excitement. Instead the in-game events get summarised (they seem to have been narrative-lite hack & slash anyway), & the story rapidly winds itself up, with a sort of zipping-slurping sound, like a blind you’re trying to get to stay pulled down. Frankly I kinda enjoyed that aspect, but I suspect it would have been more delectable if I’d also just been treated to a smidge of overt quest. (& maybe Claire could thereby have been linked, ever-so-subtly, into the denouement somehow? She's a bit vanishy). It needn’t have been a full bonus level like The Murder of Gonzago is in Hamlet, but having a messenger rush on stage and cry, “I’faith, your psionic myrmidon gains / 12,008 creds, 14,320 XP / & the UnHoly FallHeavily debuff!” maybe goes too far the other way.

That said, it’s also nice Maughan slips in this thin pasta ribbon to soak up the juices of the meatier layers. And possibly he had the rationale of not pre-empting “Havana Augmented,” which *does* rely on in-game events for a lot of its drama.

In “Dogfight,” and books like Iain M. Banks’s *Player of Games* or Orson Scott Card’s *Ender’s Game*, the comparatively immersive games permit the player’s progress to map quite neatly onto the reader’s progress (or jouissance). Of course when the game concludes, there’s the chance it may suddenly seem a Very Bad Idea to have won it (a bit ablest or genocide-y or something, e.g.). But that shifting evaluation still manifests as a reversal, a twist. Whereas in some other stuff – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes’s Dream Park series, maybe? – it’s all a bit more interpenetrating. The gameplay is sporadically and/or selectively immersive. Sometimes the reader may be simultaneously absorbed in in-game desiderata, and also the larger system which incorporates, complicates and even contradicts those desiderata. Quasi-in-game objects may feel like they have dual or complex values. The reader may even get the trippy triple-take, “Whoa, I just forgot that’s not real! Whoa, I just forgot it’s not real that that’s not real!” I felt that “Havana Augmented,” even though it doesn't go on long enough for that stuff to really get going, still belongs more with this second camp.

I’m really not even familiar enough with the clichés about Cuba to judge how well the country is evoked as a locale, but I did detect a slightly hammy ponderousness in some of the dialogue – especially in the early info dump scene with the two state officials. “Josef here will drive you back now” – I’m just not 100% behind that ‘here.’ This story was still my second-favourite though.

So how is writing proper cyberpunk different in 2011/2012 from, say, 1982? For one thing, the archetypal cyberpunk characters – outcasts, hackers, petty criminals, dissenters – have a somewhat conflicted relationship with cool. Corporate money is suspect, but so are hipsters. These characters often realise that mainstream culture routinely looks to the margins to refresh itself, and that the romanticised ideal of the outcast is solidly middle-of-the-road. Conversely, celebrity is not necessarily a symptom of selling out.

Also, the future is closer! QR codes, Google Goggles, Google Streetview, air-typing, face recognition, targeted advertising, augmented reality, reality TV, constructed reality, silent discos, tecchy top-of-the-mountain type kit, LARP, GPS, BCI, AI – this stuff is already here. Some of it has been around for decades. Maughan’s ingenuity is in imagining how tech which is roughly familiar, in a proof-of-principle sense, might be embedded in products, marketing, distribution, access, in the attitudes and culture of users, and in a broader social setting, and how these various lived-in techs might interact together.

To be an eensy bit sloganish: the soft social sf which contradistinguished cyberpunk when cyberpunk was emerging in the 1980s is now how you DO cyberpunk.

PS: OK, cosplay cosmetic surgery aside, we’re not all chockablock with invasive augmentations, but Maughan’s world reaffirms the sense that technology doesn’t have to be inside the body to drastically change the body. Smartphones are enough. Compare Donna Haraway’s old saw about how contact lenses make us cyborgs; eating cooked food makes us cyborgs, etc.

What I really liked across the triptych was the sense of people inhabiting different superimposed worlds, whilst still interacting with each other. You see different phantasmic billboards depending on who holds what data on you, and what they can afford to bid for your attention. You see something different from the person next to you. You might be oblivious to the epic mecha street brawl which that person is witnessing. You might be waiting for the bus at a bus stop, while the person next to you is waiting for the bus at a massive rave. Most of the rest of the presences at her rave might be AI, or people scattered across the globe, or pre-recorded restligeists, or syntheses thereof. I’m very interested in the partial & contested disembodiment implied by populating the shared sensuous landscape with bespoke phantoms, manifestations which may be the unpredictable outcomes of corporate strategies, mass online trends, and also individual user filters and remediations. What might it mean for labour? What might it mean for getting safely from A to B? It’s bad enough getting mowed down every time you try to listen to a bit of Ivor Cutler on your iPod on your way to the Co-op. What might it mean for sex? What might it mean for malicious code? For IT support? Emergency services? Crowd / traffic control? Celebrity? If Maughan keeps writing in this universe, I hope he keeps pushing this kind of line, and is able to discover more & more variety there.

PPS: There are some minor formatting mistakes – stuff like an extra space or inverted commas facing the wrong way. The convention for punctuating direct speech is logical (indeed close to what’s sometimes called the “logical quotation” style) and consistent, but pretty non-standard, & distracting for a nit-picker like me. & yet I can get over those Irish dashes or Jane Austen bunging in “was her reply” inside the same inverted commas as the reply, so maybe I should get over it. I like 3Cube’s offhand reference to “a gushing thousand-word review or a sarcastic hundred and forty-character tweet,” as though he recognises the tweet as a perfectly valid genre, & a well-judged tweet far more important than a TLDR review like this one.

PPPS: Just came across this BBC article about Microsoft's patent for circumambient gaming imagery and Sony's Spex-like VR headset, both still in their respective enclaves of the works.

PPPPS: This is a re-post of a Goodreads review.

Also: economic speculative fiction. Speculative fiction of gamification.

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