synners Pat Cadigan, 1991
Geoff Ryman recalls the pre- internet book that made some uncanny predictions
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