Thursday, January 24, 2013

Technogenesis



Rating: 3 stars
Length: Smoothly compact (326 pages)
Publication: January 1, 2002 from Roc
Premise: Not too far in our future, Jasmine Reese is a talented data miner, able to sift tiny pieces of information from the sea of information. When her data masks malfunctions, she has to live outside that insulated world-- when she looks around through her own eyes, she starts to notice that the connected are oddly coordinated, and that they seem to be watching her.
Warnings: forced control of the body via technology, mental hacking into the brains of others without their consent
Recommendation: Technogenesis is conceptually intriguing, but the characters and plot (particularly in the latter part of the book) can get a little odd. Try picking it up used or at a library unless cyberpunk is really your thing.


What keeps this one topical and intriguing: 

In all honesty, this is the book I've done for the blog that would convert best into a movie. In this world of the twenty-second century, people thrive because they are connected to the Net through data masks, rigs, or data jewelry. Without this, people can do very little: Net-connected buses won't stop, elevators won't work, and not even the most basic of services operate. This technology has become so convenient and so inextricably connected to every aspect of modern life that only "feebs," those who are for some reason unable to connect to the Net using brain-connected devices, don't use them. Jasmine Reese loves this way of life, taking advantage of the flow of information: she is a natural, one of only two percent of the population with a particular talent for understanding the Net. In one of Mitchell's best little touches, people connecting to the Net use personal metaphors, visualizations that help them manage and understand the data around them. Jasmine's metaphor is the ocean, and she is the ocean goddess diving into its depths: her friends use things like grids of light, temple meditations, or entire baseball teams composed of personal avatars throwing information around to accomplish the same thing. Each metaphor speaks to the personality of the person using it, and it helps explain how Net immersion became so enticing to so many brilliant people.

The Net combat is also absolutely brilliant. People locked in these conflicts are working entirely from mental flexibility and powerful visualizations, and that means that a large part of success is simply understanding a new strategy. Jasmine learns from one of he best, and begins to understand how to infiltrate people's minds by sliding in through their sensory inputs, inserting subtle suggestions. Most intriguingly, she learns to circumvent the way people on the Net can see each other's surface thoughts by lying to herself. She takes an existing emotion and uses it to give weight to a slightly projected lie, much like mental sleight of hand. Describing more of these sequences gets into heavy spoilers, so I'll leave it at saying that these fights are like extra-fast duels between shapeshifters adapting to each new twist and form. These combats, like so many other scenes on the Net, make the whole experience seem almost impossibly appealing.

When that experience breaks, however, the pattern becomes disturbing instead. Syne Mitchell positively excels at creating a feeling of pervasive paranoia, which is difficult in a genre where every utopia seems to have a creeping taint at its heart. Jasmine's high-end data rig malfunctions, leaving her having to struggle to do everything from catch a bus to the repair shop to get into her own apartment (though it is a little ridiculous that she can't even open her closet without the Net: have people forgotten about backups like doorknobs in the past few hundred years?) While she's waiting to buy a replacement, she notices that her thoughts are clearer and more intense when she's not processing all the incoming streams from the Net; those who are still connected seem oddly numb. Even if she trips them, they show only a momentary flash of anger before being absorbed again, and strangers slowly start gazing blankly at her. The unconnected feebs around her notice, and one tells her that she's attracted the attention of "the beast." The articles she tries to read about negative effects of the Net in the public library vanish while she's reading them, and she can't escape the sense that she's being watched....or that everyone is being subtly controlled. These passages really feel tense, and capture that skin-crawling feeling that something is wrong.

Jasmine tries to take a totally Net-free trip up to the mountains with some friends from work, with the aim of discussing what she's noticed. Despite her love for her work and the flow of data, she wants to know if there really is someone or something controlling people connected to the Net. From here the story gets a little spoiler-heavy to explain, but suffice to say that there is a guiding force. Mitchell makes the intriguing move of making this a force for good; war has ground to a halt, defense spending has been allocated to education and research, and absolutely no one connected to the Net has committed suicide in several years. Being connected smooths the rough edges of emotion, calming aggression and leading to a safer society on the whole; on the other hand, this effect compromises free will. Jasmine never wants to be connected again, but she's given a choice: spy on a group that exists outside the Net, or be locked away for the rest of her life so she can't share what she's learned. 

When faced with life imprisonment, she chooses the first, and this group is, again, a twist from the easily projected expectations. They're working to build an alternative to the controlling influence of the Net, and are working from pure motives, but their hands aren't entirely clean. Jasmine's ethical struggle over how to deal with them, what to do as she tries to balance ideals and loyalties and her own safety, is genuinely complex. The situation doesn't present simple questions, and the book doesn't try to offer simple answers; we're aware the whole way that this is an imperfect world, full of unfair choices and untidy endings. So many authors feel the urge to tie everything up in a bow at the end, and they're not wrong, but seeing Jasmine wrestle with the feeling that her victory is empty at best and a defeat at worst makes for a more ambiguous and complex world. This future, unlike so many, isn't strictly utopia or dystopia, but a blending of the two. It was written in 2002, but the eerie connectivity resonates all the more now, when people are walking around with smartphones, tablets, earbuds, and Bluetooth earpieces; it's harder to tell at a glance when someone is mentally elsewhere, and it's only getting easier to hop on. That isn't a bad thing inherently, but it does mean that this near-future isn't impossible to see.

The red pen: 

Unfortunately, despite the sheer fascination of the concepts and setting, the work on the characters isn't quite what it could be. Jasmine herself is vivid enough, even if she does spend too much time mooning over her former lover when he never appears in the book. The same doesn't quite hold for the minor character. Mitchell devotes a decent chunk of time to developing some of Jasmine's coworkers, the ones she invites out into the wilderness: we see their metaphors for the Net, learn a little about their lives, and even start to be interested in them for their own sake when they're talking about Jasmine's theory. After she moves to the next phase of her journey, we see them again for maybe a total of two paragraphs, which don't advance the plot. Later on in the book, Jasmine is paired with Dixon, an incredibly talented hacker, for her mission. He's a cipher, skilled but arrogant, with his character development (some of which is admittedly quite good) all coming long after his introduction. This means that a lot of his character comes from tropes: he's a handsome jerk who annoys her, therefore they're going to get together at some point. Either of these writing choices would be irritating, but in combination it feels like the character development is front-loaded and distributed in the wrong places.

Jasmine really does shine as a character sometimes, but many of her emotions are more told than shown, especially at the beginning, when she's constantly thinking about how much she misses her former lover. The reader never sees this man, or hears about more than one specific conversation that they've had (the one when they broke up), so it's hard to see him as more than another natural on the Net. Yes, naturals are rare, but they aren't unicorns, and that aspect of the relationship isn't explored as much as it could be; given how compact the book is otherwise, this level of moping (which vanishes abruptly when the plot picks up) stands out as unnecessary. In other places, something obviously shocking will happen, like brain-hacking or an attack, Jasmine will display some powerful emotion.....and then there will be another few paragraphs explaining that she's never felt so bad, or she feels guilty for her action, to the point that the initial impact is diminished.

When Jasmine is busy trying to root out secrets in exchange for her freedom, she's also dealing with torn loyalties; she had thought that she would never be able to access the Net again without having her thoughts warped and the very edge of her mental power co-opted, but the new network that these scientists offer is tempting. Sadly, the twists surrounding this conclave seem to come out of nowhere. These characters have barely been introduced when things start to go badly wrong, and the whole process doesn't entire make sense. Mitchell introduces the scientists and their goals, gives barely a chapter to adjust, and starts undermining everything. The movement from tainted utopia to seemingly pure haven, which turns out to be poisoned in turn, can be incredibly powerful, but it's hard to feel surprised or invested when it starts to feel like there are only a few more pages before the next lie or hidden problem crops up.

The real problem comes with the ending of the book, which feels as though it should have taken another hundred pages, or even been built up to make this a two-book pairing. The climax itself is too sudden, which is unfortunate given the potential it had, and post-climax it just becomes downright nonsensical. There's a creative and well-written Net sex scene, which is incredibly rare in this genre and all the more interesting for it, and then sudden reveals that start to feel a little like a soap opera. Minor character is secondary character's mother! Brain damage! The secret will soon burst into the public eye! Moon base! This love is doomed and impossible! Betrayal and feelings everywhere! It's just a mess of bombshells, and if maybe half of them had been cut it would been okay, but as it is there's no time to process or deal with the consequences of anything before something else is about to explode. It ends up feeling like Mitchell had a really great outline up until the middle, threw in every plot twist in sight, and then forced things into shape for the ending she had in mind even though it didn't fit anymore.

On the whole, this does the work of really good science fiction by projecting current trends and looking at how the whole shape of society might change. It might have actually been better had it gone the route of much other science fiction and made the characters bland to keep the focus squarely on the concepts at hand instead of spending so much time on emotional problems. It certainly gets a recommendation for being intriguing, but it's also flawed in execution enough to damage its impact. 

Prospects: This is a single book, but Syne Mitchell has written a few other books, most recently The Last Mortal Man, which was to have been the first book in her Deathless series. Roc ended up cancelling the rest of the series, and she hasn't published anything since 2006, which is a shame.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Neuromancer by William Gibson. It feels a little lazy to recommend the cornerstone of the cyberpunk genre, but the way the main character once soared through lattices of data with his consciousness in the network was unquestionably part of the inspiration for Technogenesis. 
~Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. This book does cyberpunk in brilliantly weird ways that are hard to explain, but it's absolutely worth trying.

No comments:

Post a Comment