The return of the queen of cyberpunk

Science fiction novelist Pat Cadigan watches her imagined futures turn real

By Andrew Leonard

Published November 18, 1998 6:00PM (EST)

Even when she's calling herself an "idiot," or otherwise indulging in cynical self-deprecation, Pat Cadigan still swaggers -- just like you'd hope a cyberpunk legend would. She's the kind of person who looks like she's wearing a leather jacket even when she isn't -- who you don't want to rile, but would love to party with. In short -- as one would expect from the author of the 1989 cyberpunk classic "Synners," probably the best science fiction novel with a rock 'n' roll theme -- she's a rocker.

She's also got a sense of humor, which she uses for mocking self-aggrandizement. Over dinner at a sushi restaurant in Berkeley, she recounted the moment when "The X-Files'" Gillian Anderson, hosting a BBC TV show, introduced a new segment by looking dramatically at the camera and announcing, "And now, the queen of science fiction, Pat Cadigan."

"Scully called me the queen of science fiction!" Cadigan says proudly, eyes twinkling at the absurdity. And then she snorts. In town in part to do press for her first novel in five years, "Tea From an Empty Cup," Cadigan is quite aware that there are plenty of other claimants to that throne. But she'll take an "X-Files" endorsement when she can get one.

And who knows? Some more good press, combined with healthy sales figures for "Tea From an Empty Cup," might convince a publisher to bring her backlist of novels into print once again. What, you say, "Synners," a novel acclaimed by cyberpunk icons like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is out of print? "Don't get me started," Cadigan harrumphs -- she'd rather not dwell on the vagaries of the science fiction publishing business. If she thinks too long about the bean counters and bottom-liners who are ruining the genre, steam is likely to start busting out of her ears.

Instead, Cadigan would rather talk about her recent visit to George Lucas' special effects factory, Industrial Light and Magic. She has just spent a day there conducting interviews as part of her research for a quickie book about the making of "The Mummy," due next year. It's her second such book -- she also wrote a "Making of 'Lost In Space'" book. And in both cases, she's enjoyed the strange pleasure of watching things she dreamed up in her novels play out in real life.

On the set of "Lost in Space," she observed Gary Oldman acting in a scene without any other actors, responding only to computer cues. Oldman, she was informed, was a "syn-thespian" -- a term that's music to the ears of the author of "Synners," which is populated by characters who synthesize music and other forms of entertainment in virtual reality. At ILM, she watched a graphics whiz integrate computer-generated images with the real-life performance of an actual actor, weaving them together with an ease that back in 1989 would have seemed like, well, science fiction.

"'The Mummy' is not a cyberpunk movie," says Cadigan. "It's the way that it is made that is so cyberpunk -- which I like even better. I get a big kick out of that."

The late '90s is a strange time for an original cyberpunk like Cadigan, who, like her colleagues Sterling and Gibson, burst out of the 1980s with vivid, daring conceptualizations of a future that seemed wildly imaginative then but now are practically commonplace. Without trying, she's gone from groundbreaking visionary to documentary maker.

"Tea From an Empty Cup" -- a tightly plotted, crisply written novel that fits the classic noir mystery template set down by the likes of Raymond Chandler more comfortably than anything William Gibson has ever written -- offers a nice demonstration of how cyberpunk visions are now part of mundane reality.

Most of "Tea From an Empty Cup" takes place in an "artificial reality" -- a virtual world where visitors can don new identities more easily than costumes at a Halloween party and participate in exotic adventures and games. Cadigan's protagonist, a hard-bitten, world-weary detective named Constantin (a character that readers will undoubtedly hope to see more of in the future -- she's immediately engaging), enters this reality in search of a murder suspect. In addition to ferreting out details of the crime, she has to learn the ropes of her new world, to master the principles of navigation and the rules of etiquette. And all, of course, while the meter is running -- artificial reality doesn't come cheap. There's always a reminder, somewhere, that "billable hours" are ticking away.

The basic details of this artificial reality will appear intimately familiar to anyone who has spent time in Internet-based virtual worlds like MUDs or MOOs. Sure, the graphic experience in Cadigan's future is better. In "Tea From an Empty Cup" brain jacks are a reality, and cool speedy drugs amp the experience up to full immersion. But these are just technological details -- all the other elements ring as true as if they were copied directly from the patterns of real human interaction in Internet communities such as LambdaMoo. There's the obsessive pursuit of "icons" -- virtual objects that endow the bearer with special powers or capabilities. There are the endless identity games, the messing about with gender and appearance that virtual worlds make so tempting. And, of course, there is the problem of addiction -- the insidious way that virtual worlds can become so much more enthralling than the real world.

Cadigan says she has spent hardly any time at all in MUDs, aside from a brief tour that then-MIT graduate student Amy Bruckman gave her of the MIT MediaMoo. It's just a happy accident that the world she creates in "Tea From an Empty Cup" maps so closely to contemporary developments in cyberspace. But she does acknowledge that the speed at which the world has embraced the cyberpunk vision "certainly doesn't make it any easier" to be a cutting-edge science fiction author.

At the same time, Cadigan dismisses the issue as not particularly relevant. "Science fiction," she notes, "has always been about the 'now.'" She tells a story about calling her ex-husband long-distance using a calling card, and having the calling card run out of credit in the middle of the call -- that's what she was thinking about when she invoked the constant reminders that "billable time" was flowing away in the artificial reality of "post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty."

Cadigan refused to get drawn further into a discussion of how "Tea From an Empty Cup" reflected the current "now." She's too close to the novel to see it clearly, she says, suggesting that frequently even the author of a novel doesn't know what she is writing about until years afterward. She's eager to get on with her next project -- after a five-year drought during which personal problems and illness kept her creatively stifled, she now feels reinvigorated.

It's good to see. The fast pace of technocultural development may be keeping the pressure on those authors who don't shy away from the cyberpunk label, but their resolve to keep pushing at the limits, at least as evidenced by Cadigan, appears undiminished. Cadigan, who is 46 years old, now lives in London, hangs out in drum-and-bass techno clubs and expresses as much passion for current "harder-edged" rock as her "Synners" characters did for the '60s music that they cut their teeth on. After all, as she points out, "one of the things that I wanted to say in 'Synners' was that no matter how old you get, you are still going to want to kick out the jams. If that's the type of person you were, then that's the type of person you will be."

A cyberpunk credo, if there ever was one.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew LeonardFOLLOW koxinga21LIKE Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Business