CyberwebCyberweb by Lisa Mason
Avon Books, 1995
Price I paid: $1.95

Carly Nolan was once a professional telelinker with a powerful corrupt legal firm. Now she lives an outlaw life at the bottom of the human garbage heap―a penniless recovering cram addict wanted by the authorities for dubious crimes against the Data Control bureaucracy. But with a new job―and the help of an aging standalone A.I. entity named Pr. Spinner―she hopes to find the fast track back into public telespace.

Her assignment, however, has sticky strings attached. For it has made Carly the target of a ruthless mercenary Ultra fembot, the love obsession of the young shaman of a savage urban tribe―and a possible pawn of Silicon Supremacists plotting no less than the annihilation of humankind.

Golly gee oh golly gee, it’s the nineties!

This cover is, simply put, a masterpiece of nineties awesomeness. Metal tentacles, giant metal spider, sexy cleavage lady wearing a badass visor and a onesie that, if shown in its entirety, would reveal actual vulva. Are her leggings made of metal? Her upper arms look like one of those caterpillars from Super Mario World. Is the spider her friend? Is it gonna shoot her with those pointy things? Maybe it’ll prooooobe

Okay that’s enough of that.

This book instantly earns a billion fake Internet points for having the word Cyber in the title. The fact that it’s a cyber web is just modem icing on the pixel cake. Am I doing it right? See, I’m trying to write cyberpunk, because this book has inspired me.

I’m gonna come right out and say it: I’m not much fond of cyberpunk. I’m not saying that it’s a bad genre or that you shouldn’t like it, I’m just establishing that it’s not my jam. And that’s okay! Not everything’s for me! I get it!

But I feel like I have to bring that fact up because I’m afraid that my reflexive dismissal of the genre might bias me against this book unfairly. (I want my biases to be fair, dammit!) One thing I try not to do when I read is to immediately negate the premise of a book. I want to let it stand on its own and see how it handles what it has to say within the framework that it sets out. Sometimes that’s hard to do, but it’s worth it.

So, that said, as a guy who didn’t like Snow Crash and never finished Neuromancer but will admit to a strange fondness for Shadowrun even though I’ve never actually played it, how did I like Cyberweb?

It was okay! Fair to middlin’. The book was hardly at all offensive on any front, and there were times when I found myself pretty deeply immersed in what was going on, at least for a page or two.

The world of Cyberweb is pretty stock cyberpunk, at least as I’ve come to understand it. Back in the nineties, pessimism was (justifiably) a leading way to look at the future, and this work is no exception. It’s a crapsack world where megacorporations rule everything, government bureaucracies exist only to maintain the status quo, healthcare is a perk affordable only to the wealthiest, and everybody is jacking in all over the place.

At…at least we kept the last one from happening. A little.

Dear 1995 Thomas,

I’m sorry.

2017 Thomas

p.s. I know puberty sucks but things get marginally better.

Alternately, maybe I could be chastising this genre for being the roadmap to the handbasket of a future we’ve all agreed to ride to hell on, but that’s not the point of this blog. Neither is mangling analogies, thank you very much. I do that because I enjoy it.

Cyberweb, a title that just aches for CamelCase, is the story of Carly Nolan, a perfect genetically engineered girl who’s just trying to make a living for herself in a world gone mad. It turns out that most of her backstory is covered in the first book in this series. You know, the one I didn’t know about because the cover of this book conveniently neglected to inform me that I was about to spend two bucks on a sequel.

Publishing industry, I swear to god…

The cover of Cyberweb does tell us that Lisa Mason is the author of Arachne, and that was a bit of a warning flag that I’ll admit I ignored, so some of that’s on me. I mean, this is a book with a big spider on the front and a title that hints broadly at spider-related activity. I should probably have noticed that the author had written another book that was basically named Spider and that it might have been somehow connected to this one.

So Carly is down on her luck thanks to some bad stuff that happened in the previous book. We get that backstory relayed to us in this book, so I don’t think I was missing out on anything by skipping ahead. In fact, it’s worth noting that a substantial portion of this book consists of a) relaying the backstory to us, and b) set dressing.

The author really, really wanted us to see what kind of world she’s made for us. There’s two problems with this. For starters, the world wasn’t especially original. It was fine, but apart from snarky robots that belonged in a Ron Goulart novelit was mainly just the same corporate-run jack-into-the-network cyberpunk setting we’ve all seen before.

The other problem is a little more writerly, but here’s an analogy. You ever play a video game where the game just takes control away from your character to show you the setting? Like, you’re walking toward Deathmord, City of Doom, and you’re getting pretty excited that the game’s about to end, and then the camera just zooms away without warning and you get this shot of the city you were headed toward anyway?

Well, imagine that, in text form, every twenty pages.

And then imagine that again except it’s every other page. That’s this book.

Carly just wants her life back. She just needs to prove that somebody was out to get her and that’s what led to the downfall. Helping her are a robot psychiatrist/mythologist named Pr. Spinner and another robot named Saint Download who I basically imagined as a one of those gonk droids from Star Wars.

I mention that Pr. Spinner is a sort of mythologist because it’s relevant. See, Carly has a special power. Kind of. I never quite got what was going on with this thing. She’s got a hyperlink. But the hyperlink is also an Archetype. It’s a spider named the Arachne and it manifests herself when Carly is jacked-in to telespace. It’s Jungian, I guess.

A lot of the descriptions of telespace didn’t quite make sense to me. I never got quite a good feeling for what it was supposed to look like, or what it was able to do, or any of that stuff. You know what, though? I’m saying that this is one of the book’s stronger points.

I imagine that some kind of digital manifestation interspace or whatever we’re going to call it would be quite different from everyday life…after a while. At first it would probably be just a representation of the real world in some kind of digital form, but as it grew and developed and more people used it and got used to it, it would take on a form of its own with key differences from reality. This book, I’ll argue, does that pretty well. Carly just does things without much description of how she does it. On one hand that’s a little troublesome―if we don’t understand the protagonist’s capabilities then the resolution to the conflict will likely feel like a cop-out―but on the other hand it makes sense because we’re following this character’s thoughts and actions from her point of view, and there’s no reason for her to behave in any way other than a matter-of-fact one.

I hesitate to say this was 100% intentional, considering just how much time was spent describing the world outside of the telespace. Still, it worked.

Another thing that worked was that there were actually three point-of-view characters. We’ve got Carly, but some chapters followed her robot friend Pr. Spinner, and others followed the actions of an urban tribal named Ouija. Ouija’s people were usually called aborigines, which doesn’t make much sense, and were more often called “abos,” which is a slur in modern-day Australia. I bring this up, though, because I was impressed at how different the narration for each character felt. They felt like, well, different characters, and that’s pretty impressive for a book I paid two bucks for. And what’s better is that the author pulled it off without a lot of distracting eye-dialect stuff. She just picked her vocabulary well and used a couple of turns of phrase that fit the characters and boom, it worked out pretty damn well.

So Carly gets hired by this entity called Cognatus that manifests in telespace as a chimera with the head of a lizard, a dog, and a human. Carly apparently manifests as a cube. I don’t know if that’s supposed to indicate something. Whatever. So Cognatus gives her this job and a lot of money, and so Carly does the job and then does more, but she starts to get suspicious of Cognatus’s true goals and tries to figure them out, and then there’s a big climax at the end that involves Carly’s dead dad’s digital ghost.

(Her dad died while plugged in to the telespace.)

All the while we’re told that Carly is special because she’s got this spider thing (Archetypes somehow grow spontaneously from people? And they’re rare? And there’s something about hyperlinks?). I didn’t get a very good grasp of why this was except that whenever Carly was in trouble in the telespace the spider would show up and save the day.

The book ends on a major cliffhanger, with Carly having to kill her dad’s Internet ghost and Pr. Spinner getting an all-new sexy robot body (the “ultra fembot” the back of the book mentions), and I felt a little bit disappointed that nothing was resolved. There’s no sequel to this book. It’s a pity.

I come down hard on a lot of this book and I think that its main saving grace was actually Ouija. The jacket copy makes it sound like he’s obsessed with Carly in a romantic way, but that’s jacket lies. They do make the Horizontal Boot Scootin’ Boogie at one point, but Ouija isn’t obsessed with Carly for that reason. He owes her a life debt thanks to something she does early in the novel.

That’s not the part that I liked. What I liked was that he was a non-technological person in this hypertechnological society, and we got to see how this cyberpunk nightmare looked from his point of view. Ouija doesn’t jack in to the telespace. He’s suspicious of it. He thinks it’s a domain of ghosts that steal your soul. Yeah, on one hand this is all coming across as a stock “primitive superstitions” thing that’s offensive, but it was nonetheless fascinating for me to imagine someone living amidst, but on the outskirts of, a high-tech society that they don’t belong to and nonetheless having to incorporate it into their worldview.

There’s supposed to be this plot about Silicon Supremacists looking to destroy humanity or something, but like everything else, it never resolved. There were some clues pointing toward it, and I guess it turns out that none of the people we suspected as working for them throughout the book were actually doing so except for the ultra fembot.

There was one problematic moment in the book that I want to bring up, mostly because it’s something I see a lot in writing about the future, especially the crapsack future. Outright sexuality takes a backseat in this book―the one sex scene takes place off the page―but there was one mention of a non-heteronormative couple at a point near the beginning of the book. Carly sees a pair of men laughing and holding hands, presumably on their way to do some fun stuff together. One of the men is wearing a red dress and makeup and a full beard. Whatever, that’s all fine.

Or is it?

Like, here’s the thing: a lot of this book’s set dressing is there to show us how absurd and terrible this future world is. There’s toxic waste running down the street, fergodsakes. So is that the case with this single nontraditional romance? Is it just an example of how terrible this future is, and how much of that is based on the author’s point of view? Is it an example of how things that were once shunned in society are now out in the open? As a similar example, drugs are largely legal in this future world, and it’s depicted as a pretty terrible thing. Addiction and crime are rampant. Is a pair of dudes getting ready to make kisses on each other being cast in the same light as that?

It’s something you’ll see a lot in science fiction, especially in stuff from the seventies to the nineties. We like to think that sf authors are progressive, and plenty of them are, but we also end up getting reminded that some were people who lived in the past and had some silly ideas that were all part of the worldview of the time. I bring it up not to cast aspersions on anybody, but to remind us that we can all do better. Maybe think a little bit about what it says about you before you use someone’s behavior as an example of how bizarre and/or shitty your setting is.

Now, let’s all digi-go and hyper-do cyber-better. Monitor pixel RAM.

2 thoughts on “Cyberweb

  1. This is the kind of review I like best, and they seem to come when you half-way, sorta, kinda like a book, but not really. There is a ton here about what works and doesn’t work, which is useful to an author who barely has time to read good books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s the kind of review I enjoy writing most, too. I like to feel like I’m saying something useful instead of just “this is dumb.” It’s a pity that it’s almost completely up to chance whether the book turns out to be useful that way…

      Liked by 1 person

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