syn­ners Pat Cadi­gan, 1991

Ge­off Ry­man re­calls the pre- in­ter­net book that made some un­canny pre­dic­tions

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Rated / Promotion -

syn­ners is about cool peo­ple be­com­ing less cool. The Syn­the­siz­ers are into sex, drugs, tat­toos and ar­ro­gance. They make vir­tual re­al­i­ties and videos – news, games and mu­sic videos so im­mer­sive that they turn ev­ery­thing into “porn” you can see, smell, but also feel as emo­tions. The Syn­ners all know each other, and are age­ing with grown up kids. The cor­po­rates are tak­ing them over.

Gabe is a nice guy stuck mak­ing com­mer­cials or shoot-’ em- ups; his daugh­ter Sam gets an un­ex­pected hack that will even­tu­ally make her the tar­get of a po­lice hunt. Gina is a tough old bird who doesn’t apol­o­gise when she slugs Gabe by mis­take. Vis­ual Mark is an ad­dled ge­nius, be­trayed and made a guinea pig by friends. There are at least 20 ma­jor char­ac­ters in a plot so thick you could use it to fill in cracks in your wall.

Af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion, you find out that a cor­po­rate called the Dive bought out our he­roes’ com­pany to get hold of a patent – an or­ganic brain im­plant that im­proves out­put to new lev­els. The Dive are il­le­gally ex­per­i­ment­ing on friends. The one- third turn­around throws a span­ner – some­thing called Ar­tie Fish starts talk­ing to Sam. Ba­si­cally, the in­ter­net has wo­ken up and is con­scious. As one of the char­ac­ters says, “What’s wrong with the name Franken­stein?” At the half­way turn­around the new im­plant gets loose, Cadi­gan puts her foot down on the ac­cel­er­a­tor, and the whole cul­ture is up­ended. You want your clas­sic novel struc­ture, this is it.

Syn­ners was pub­lished in 1991 so writ­ten be­fore, friends, the web ex­isted. This wired fu­ture is dif­fer­ent from ours. The cre­ated video/ VR is pushed out to screens or head­sets by wires through a cen­tralised media sys­tem. Nev­er­the­less the book feels like it was writ­ten now. “Porn” is ba­si­cally our re­al­ity TV – cheaply en­acted or filmed shows about food or prison. Cadi­gan is a prophet – we get Sat Nav mis­lead­ing trav­ellers, eye- track­ing re­search, cor­po­rate hacks, pri­vacy in­va­sion and an Ed­ward Snow­den- like leaker.

Cadi­gan does great info- dump. The ex­pla­na­tion of the im­plants from roughly pages 63 to 70 shows Cadi­gan in charge of neu­rol­ogy and cy­ber­net­ics, enough to make me be­lieve in the im­plants. And want one. I’m mys­ti­fied as to how Cadi­gan knew this much so early. For me, one an­swer is in the ac­knowl­edge­ments – she knew the right peo­ple and she knew a lot of them. You get a sense of New York and fandom in the ’ 80s. You can al­most smell those late nights drink­ing.

The Syn­ners feel mod­elled on rock stars. Gina and Gabe watch Hen­drix in a holo­gram ( we also get Dy­lan and Lou Reed). Gina re­mem­bers Amer­i­can Bandstand on through Live Aid.

“‘ It was later that mu­sic started to stand for some­thing,’ she went on sud­denly, in a quiet voice. ‘ There were all these ideas, the ideas were in the mu­sic, the mu­sic was in the ideas… This was be­fore any­one got the bright idea to do the mon­ster ben­e­fits to feed the hun­gry. You prob­a­bly don’t know what those are. No­body does that any­more. Now they go get the hun­gry with cam and they call it ‘ poverty porn’ or ‘ slum porn’.” Don’t sup­pose you saw Ben­e­fit Street? Cadi­gan has a neat line in hard, funny come­backs, es­pe­cially from women. The writ­ing can be wise and curt to the point of apho­rism. On why Gabe only had one kid: “More chil­dren would have meant more peo­ple he could dis­ap­point, while for Cather­ine it would have meant more peo­ple who could dis­ap­point her.” SFF nov­els of­ten take wing in the open­ing where the writ­ing cap­tures the breath­less ex­cite­ment of new ideas. Cadi­gan’s open­ing comes on like a SFF An­nie Proulx, long, rolling sen­tences that talk like an Amer­i­can fu­ture. When the Syn­ners start mak­ing their new stuff, the prose reads more like po­etry.

This is a story of ev­ery­day life – traf­fic jams and detox. This is a novel about mak­ing art and find­ing your­self. It’s not a noir thriller with a bit of com­puter jar­gon. The char­ac­ters don’t need to know how to kill peo­ple be­fore they’re worth a story. This is about a group who are part of some­thing big. That sense of mul­ti­ple lives, like Face­book or Twit­ter, is another prophetic el­e­ment in this cor­us­cat­ing novel, which won one of its au­thor’s two Arthur C Clarke Awards. Ge­off Ry­man is a Ne­bula and Arthur C Clarke Award- win­ning au­thor.

you get a sense of New york and fandom in the ’ 80s

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