Cyberpunk started as a rebellious subgenre, a sort of thumb in the eye to both Golden Age and New Wave SF. Over the years, though, it has developed an orthodoxy all its own. The prototypical cyberpunk novel contains 1) a near-future setting; 2) plenty of high-tech body modification; 3) an anti-capitalist distrust of all things corporate; 4) virtual reality of some sort; 5) a fascination with Asia in general and Japan in particular; 6) an impressively intense anti-authoritarian impulse; and 7) drugs, lots of drugs. Of course, no cyberpunk story needs equal emphasis on all these elements, and what makes things interesting is the way in which authors trumpet some and mute others. Take Pat Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup, which was praised by no less than William Gibson, Mister Cyberpunk himself (“ambitious and brilliantly executed”). It’s a novel which so focuses on surreal VR and Japanese culture that it ends up feeling like an eastern-tinged Through the Looking-Glass.
Yuki Harame worries over the disappearance of Tom Iguchi, her boyfriend and one of the few Japanese still alive after the island’s destruction. Sure, Tom has never been known for his stability, but this sudden vanishing seems strange even for him. That’s why Yuki is seeking out Joy Flower, a local mogul notorious for ... well, no one’s entirely sure what she does. Criminal, sex addict, madam to the degenerate rich—Joy Flower could be any of them. Yuki only knows that she manages a coterie of male eye candy and Tom might have joined it. So she’s going to seek him out the only way she knows how, namely by hiring on to Joy Flower’s crew. Meanwhile, homicide investigator Doré Konstantin finds herself investigating the strangest case of her career. A man has died during an Artificial Reality bender, his throat slashed open while still sheathed in the trademark suit that makes electronic imaginings feel realer than real itself. His throat was slit, a savage slice that clove clean through his trachea at the very moment that his avatar perished in exactly the same way while touring a projection of post-apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty. Strange that a simulation could kill—and stranger still that the victim was going by the name Tom Iguchi.
I want to love Tea from an Empty Cup. Cadigan has such an expansive imagination, sprinkling the novel with incidental details that hint a larger speculative world. For instance, devotees of a religion dedicated to dwarfism warp their metabolisms during childhood. A female cop somehow manages to grow a mustache. No one ever mentions Washington, D.C., without intoning, “Life is so cheap there.” And in Artificial Reality (or “AR” as it’s called), reflections become sentient, UFOs funnel abductees into secret sex clubs, and help programs are hobos with attitude. But despite such delightful details, Tea plays it too coy with the plot to inspire adoration. Cyberpunk often features trippy interludes usually brought on by computer interfacing or proscribed pharmaceuticals, and Tea does the same—for a full nine-tenths of the book. Yuki and Konstantin spend almost all of their time in AR with neither having the slightest idea what’s going on around them. Such mutual lack of comprehension quickly becomes irritating, oddity after oddity swirling kaleidoscopically around them while imparting little sense of progress. Then—bam!—the resolution hits like a sucker punch, everything wrapped neatly up in a few pat pages. It left me reeling. Tea may taste sweet at first, but it’s bitter in the end.
(Picture: CC 2006 by Damien Gabrielson)