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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Philip K. Dick Award Nominees, Part 4 - Terminal Mind, by David Walton (reviewed by Fabio Fernandes)

There are cyberpunks and there are cyberpunks. Then, there are cyberpunks.

You could more or less easily categorize these authors in some tentative "coca-cola-style" subcategories, namely: Classic Cyberpunk, Vanilla Cyberpunk, Decaf Cyberpunk, and, as they say in France and in Brazil, Cyberpunk de boutique, that is, le fake du fake.

But even this "fake cyberpunk" is fake that knows that is fake. Take The Fifth Element, for instance. Luc Besson directed a bande dessinée movie, a legit French SF, and a satyrical one at that.

More recently, we had, also from France, Maurice G. Dantec´s Babylon Babies, which was adapted to the silver screen featuring Vin Diesel.

But real cyberpunk is dead. Cyberpunk has moved on. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan - all of them (and many, many more - multitudes of authors, like Paul Di Filippo, Rudy Rucker, Tom Maddox, Marc Laidlaw, Lewis Shiner and still others) are doing other things entirely. Because everything change.

Even if you want to write a cyberpunk story today, however, there´s no guidebook or stylebook to tell you can´t - but if you decide to do that, keep in mind that the cyberpunk of the eighties belong there - in the eighties. We´re in the oughts, and some of the classic tropes doesn´t apply anymore.

David Walton´s Terminal Mind is a beautiful tribute to the cyberpunk of the eighties (I´ve even read part of the book listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees, and it felt good), but it didn´t feel quite right. Because it was written now.

There is an excess of clichés in this book - think in a scarred landscape, a divided America, a couple of young hackers intent on doing some damage to the system, a young Amish-like girl, more-or-less innocent, who gets kicked out of her community and must strive in the megalopolis, and, most important of all, a virtual personality (called a "slicer", because it´s made from scanned brain slices) who doesn´t know it´s not alive, has the mind of a four-year boy and talks like one.

The young hackers, a rich kid (a Rimmer, from the privileged area of crater rim in central Philadelphia) called Mark McGovern, and a poor kid (a Comber, from the inner city) called Darin Kinskey. Both have their grudges against the system: Mark despises his rich father, a scientist/politician whose inventions have caused many people to lose their jobs (even though he defends passionately his father when talking to Darin); Darin has a mentally and physically challenged brother who suffered a major breakdown after a mod surgery with bad celgel that made his DNA rot.

They inadvertently cause an explosion in the Franklin Dam - that explosion, however, wasn´t caused directly by them, but by a slicer (the abovementioned 4-y.o., whose irritating baby-talk opens each chapter) misguided by his "father", an evil scientist called Alastair Tremayne who researched immortality but gave it up and now it´s quite content with world (of at least Philadelphia, a major power after the big conflict that fragmented America six decades before) domination. Tremayne is a trigger-happy man: not only is has a slicer under his command, but he is also starting to do the same process using a frozen embryo he managed to steal years before from the same donor of the original slicer: Marie Coleson, a software programmer for the Navy who lost her husband and infant son in an accident. Coincidentally, her husband happened to work for Tremayne at the time.

After the Franklin Dam accident (in which hundreds are killed), both Mark and Darin are on the run - but Mark is freed from charges because of his father´s political clout, while Darin must burrow deeper into the underground and join a radical group, the Black Hands, in order both to hide and to overthrow the regime.

The relationships that form are so easily paired that sometimes they seem to come from the pages of old "sword and planet" stories. Lydia, the outside girl who comes suddenly to Philadelphia, meets Darin first, but soon after that she also meets Mark, and she will see that, even though Darin is being framed and he must be helped (which she does, because she is a good girl) he is such a radical guy that she quickly starts falling for Mark.

The cyberpunk environment Walton creates is much too crude and black-and-white. The politics is manicheist: either you are good or you are evil. There is room for doubt, granted, but only if you are a good person, intent on repenting, which you eventually do, and so (naturally) you are forgiven for your sins. All ends well - that is, if you don´t believe things can be made right and your wronged friends can be saved, for instance.

We´ven seen that before, many times. Terminal Mind doesn´t bring us anything new, unfortunately. It can´t seem to decide even if it is a YA novel or an adult one.

In the original cyberpunk stories, you had all that pent-up truly punk energy. You don´t have it here, sadly. It is a regular, vanilla story. Maybe it can be an interesting entry level story for teens interested in cyberpunk - but I´d still stick to the original stuff.


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