Last Tango in Cyberspace

Last Tango in Cyberspace
By Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler’s latest book is set in the near future and includes a lot of what is now drawing-board tech. It’s a world advanced enough to seem strange, but fans of William Gibson should feel at home in the surroundings.

Judah “Lion” Zorn is what’s known as an empathy tracker: a next-generation coolhunter with extra-sensory powers that allow him to feel the next big thing coming before it arrives. This makes Lion much in demand among corporate types, and as the novel gets started he’s been called in by a giant pharmaceutical company to make sense of some strange happenings.

The whirlwind plot takes the frequently doped-up Lion all over the world, encountering various exotic characters and groups connected to a scheme involving arguments over animal rights and empathy’s role in evolution. At times things can get hard to follow, especially given Kotler’s fractured, high-speed prose and the penchant his characters have for indulging in lots of semi-obscure cultural references. Hold on to the thread though and the novel goes to some interesting places.


By Reed King

The current partisan drift in American politics has given rise to a number of books set in a future Disunited States.

Most often the break-up takes the form of a simple red state-blue state split, as in Omar El Akkad’s American War and Neal Stephenson’s Fall. In FKA USA, however, the fragmentation is more advanced.

The aftermath of a mid-twenty-first century extinction event known as the Great Die-Off has led to political breakdown. Truckee Wallace must journey across the resulting patchwork-quilt of statelets of what was Formerly-Known-As the U.S.A. on a comic-book adventure involving a talking goat named Barnaby, an android who wants to be human, and a lobotomized former convict.

Reed King (a pseudonym) has put a lot of effort into building the scaffolding for this zany world, including extensive footnotes and appendixes outlining the history of the calamitous future. What makes the story work though is its more traditional journey narrative. FKA USA is a satirical Wizard of Oz road trip through a post-apocalyptic fairground, and well worth the ride.

His Master’s Voice

His Master’s Voice
By Stanislaw Lem (translated by Michael Kandel)

It’s a testament to the infectious enthusiasm of his philosophical inquiries that Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice, a book with little plot or even story, wherein nothing much happens but intellectual speculation abounds, is so fascinating even fifty years after its original publication. Indeed one could argue that the ideas it engages with are even more relevant and provocative today.

As an example, near the end of the book there’s a mini-conference where speakers debate the future directed evolution of our species and human society. It doesn’t really connect to much else in the book, and yet it’s the kind of discussion that makes us want to put the book down and think. Not to mention the way that these questions are headline news in the twenty-first century.

The rest of the book is a further exploration of Lem’s favourite theme, that of the fundamental incommunicability, whether through language or any other medium, of individual experience. I think this is his greatest, though not the most dramatic, development of that theme, and one of the most essential works in the history of science fiction.


By Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is not a prolific author – Exhalation is only his second story collection – but he has a big reputation, recently bolstered by having written the story that the Denis Villeneuve movie Arrival was based on.

Chiang’s stories operate a bit like speculative essays, though they’re a lot more fun than that sounds. Few authors working today are as good at exploring our intimate connection to technology. In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” he gives us what may be the best look yet at what it means to fall in love with an artificial intelligence, with all of the feelings of responsibility and dependency that love entails. In “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” two watershed moments are juxtaposed in order to show how the tools we use for recording daily experience change us. This is how technology works: we shape it and then it shapes us in turn. We get inside each other.

It’s a short step in a Chiang story from the everyday to the bizarre: a time-travel portal or a fidget-like toy may equally teach us profound truths about ourselves. Truths we may conclude we’re better off not knowing.


By Marc-Uwe Kling

QualityLand is a very funny book that hits close to home because it understands that the best satire only needs to tweak its subject a little bit to work.

We can relate to Peter’s struggles after a drone delivers him a pink dolphin vibrator from online retailer TheShop. This must be a mistake, but the system can’t be wrong. Hence what gets dubbed Peter’s Problem: when reality is fully customizable, a bad profile can lead to your being booted into the wrong world.

Peter, accompanied by a hacker girlfriend and a family of discarded robots, then leads a crusade against such faulty profiling under the Howard Beale-ish slogan “The system says I want this, but I don’t.”

But how can one’s profile be wrong? “Machines don’t make mistakes,” is the motto of QualityLand, and the entire economy depends on that supposition. We are our data, that vast collection of digital DNA shaped by our browsing histories, purchases, and all the other threads of our online lives. In QualityLand clicks have turned into kisses, and every one seals our fate a little more firmly, making sure that each of us becomes what the system believes us and wants us to be.

You may think you’re smarter than that system, or think you’re something more than your profile, but the data says you’re not. When we look into our screens our screens are looking far more deeply into us. We are, in every sense of the word, products of the algorithms.


By William Gibson

Agency isn’t exactly a sequel to William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral, but instead, to borrow the language of today’s franchise filmmaking, it’s a book taking place in the same universe.

That universe, however, is only one of many that are in play. In the future, or one possible future, a way has been invented to allow information (including consciousness, but not a physical body) to travel through time. Once such information arrives at it destination it can operate by way of a peripheral, or “quasibiological telepresence avatar,” and rewrite history.

In our own time, or something like it, Verity Jane, an “app whisperer,” is given a bit of cutting-edge tech to test drive in the form of a next generation AI personal assistant that goes by the name of Eunice, or UNISS: an Untethered Noetic Irregular Support System. The plot takes a while to become clear – Gibson doesn’t write about or for dummies – but it involves steps being taken by some people in the future to make changes in our timeline so as to head off a nuclear war.

Eunice is one of a long line of AIs in science fiction with more personality, and more agency, than the humans around her. Even Verity has to be turned into a kind of cyborg in order to function in different timelines. And it is precisely this notion of agency, of who is in the driver’s seat shaping the co-evolution of humans and machines, that remains a nagging question in the then and now.

Riot Baby

Riot Baby
By Tochi Onyebuchi

The titular riot baby in this novel is Kevin, a black child born in 1992 Los Angeles. Specifically, he arrives just hours after the courts acquitted the cops that beat Rodney King, which led to the city erupting in violence. This has special resonance for the rest of the story, as systemic racism in America is very much its subject.

Both Kevin and his older sister Ella have special powers. Ella has a vague “Thing” that allows her to see into the future, control objects, and travel among different planes of consciousness or being. Kevin’s powers are linked to Ella’s but throughout the novel are just developing. Together the siblings are avenging angels, preparing to visit the wrath of God on the oppressors of black America, who are legion.

As a political statement Riot Baby works quite well, skipping about in time and hitting all its targets with some precision. The superhero vehicle for that message, however, doesn’t add much. Characters with super powers (usually psychokinetic) are getting to be thick on the ground in today’s speculative fiction, and I can’t help thinking Marvel is mainly to blame. This is a road I don’t think SF needs to go any further down.