Technology slowly disappears as it becomes assimilated into our daily lives.
It recedes into the background, becomes less and less remarkable as we rely
on it more and more. At last it becomes both ubiquitous and invisible. When
was the last time you stopped to marvel at the technological wonders of the
automobile or the color TV? When was the last time you stopped to think about
how those technologies redefined the parameters of the world in which we live?
The Net is almost there. It's almost invisible. Not quite yet, especially in
developing nations and even in the poor rural and urban sections of rich nations
like the US and the UK, but almost. And it hasn't taken long to get there. In
1984, when William Gibson's Neuromancer first popularized the idea of
cyberspace, the Internet was just beginning its transformation from arcane technology
to mainstream communications medium. It's only been 11 years since the introduction
of Mosaic, the graphical browser that jump-started the explosive growth of the
user-friendly, hypertext medium known as the World Wide Web.
The Net has been around much longer, of course, in the imaginations of sf writers.
The idea goes back at least as far as 1946 and Murray Leinster's "A Logic
Named Joe," which describes a worldwide network of home computers (called
Logics) through which users communicate and access information. It wasn't until
the late 1980s however, that the idea of a global data network began regularly
to occur in sf, one of the earliest and most credible formulations coming with
Paul Di Filippo's 1987 story "Agents." Over the last 10 years, the
idea of the Net has permeated sf until it's become nearly inescapable. Although
it's undergone countless permutations and transformations, it remains at the
center of most of our visions of the future.
All that changes in Lou Anders' excellent new anthology Live Without a Net
(Roc Books, $14.95), which collects the work of 20 writers who imagine worlds
in which the Net has vanished, never existed, or been transformed beyond recognition.
(Full disclosure: Lou Anders is a fellow contributor to this site, although
our paths have never crossed.)
Of the many utopian ideas surrounding the Net, perhaps the most pervasive is
that it will somehow bring us all together. Even as further growth and innovation
becomes largely driven by commercial rather than intellectual interests, the
idea of connection and community remains the basis of the way the Net is sold.
It's no surprise, then, that the ideas of connection and community are central
to many of the stories in this anthology, as is the observation that the Net's
promise of togetherness may have displaced other, more fundamental modes of
human connection. The paradox of Live Without a Net is that it is precisely
here, in these myriad of worlds living without a Net, that we can begin to see
our own more clearly.
Live Without a Net is an extremely strong collection, and one of its
most conspicuous features is the uniformly high quality of its prose. Mainstream
sf being notoriously indifferent to matters of style, Anders is to be congratulated
on assembling a collection of stories that are not only vividly imagined, but
also extremely well-written. About half the work collected here is excellent,
and of the remainder, the worst you can say is that it's merely good. On the
downside, it's pretty much a boys' club -- of the 20 contributors, 17 are men.
The anthology opens with the latest of Michael Swanwick's picaresque Darger
and Surplus stories, a series set in a strangely mutated and imaginatively baroque
"postutopian future." Our heroes, the charming rogues Darger and Surplus,
are once again scheming their way across Europe; this time they're in Basel
attempting to sell the deed to Buckingham Palace (which was burned to the ground
by a deranged AI at the end of "The Dog Said Bow Wow"). Needless to
say, not everything goes as planned. "Smoke and Mirrors" is another
fine entry in what is quickly becoming one of the most dazzling and entertaining
series of the '00s.
Paul Di Filippo's "Clouds and Cold Fires" is also set in a posthuman
world of surpassing strangeness. Most of its human inhabitants long fled, Earth
is now occupied largely by genetically altered, intelligent domestic animals
who send messages via the tropospherical mind, the meteorological system that
serves as Earth's primary computer and communications medium. Like much of Di
Filippo's most appealing work, "Clouds and Cold Fires" is a clever,
charming, and just plain strange story that couldn't have been written
by anyone else.
Charles' Stross' "Rogue Farm" is very nearly as strange. The story
moves with the breathless energy and imaginative exuberance that has become
Stross' trademark as it relates the comic tale of a beleaguered farmer forced
to deal with an interloping farm collective, a bizarre assemblage of human components
merged into a single, gloopy being intent growing on organic rockets that will
blast it off to Jupiter. It's a bit less dense (and less exhausting) than Stross'
other recent work, but it's still great fun as well as a pretty wild ride.
While these stories are perhaps the most audacious of the collection (Rudy Rucker's
"Frek in the Grullo Woods" is equally idiosyncratic, but too obviously
a novel excerpt to make much of an impression on its own), other writers opt
for a quieter and more reflective tone. Of these stories, Chris Roberson's "One,"
Matthew Sturges' "The Memory Palace," and Alex Irvine's "Reformation"
are particularly good. "One" is a chilling alternate history in which
the Chief Computator of the Chinese Empire must face the possibility of his
own obsolescence in the form of a calculating machine. "The Memory Palace"
is a dark piece that imagines a Victorian alternative to virtual reality. "Reformation"
uses the twin languages of visionary Sufism and computer hacking to describe
the transformation of the Net into an aspect of the divine.
Another set of stories deals explicitly with issues of human community and
connectedness. Among the finest of these are Mike Resnik & Kay Kenyon's "Dobchek,
Lost in the Funhouse" and Del Stone Jr.'s "I Feed the Machine."
Both are touching, humane stories that explore the ways in which technologies
can colonize our capacity to feel friendship, community, and love. The collection
closes with John Grant's erotically charged "No Solace for the Soul in
Digitopia," whose explicit sexuality will doubtless raise a few eyebrows
among more conservative readers. It is, however, a fine story that examines
the ways in which our digital world, with its vast stores of online pornography
and anonymous, virtual sex, often deadens our appetites instead of satisfying
them. The sex scenes are hot, sure, but they're not gratuitous -- they're essential
to a story that provides an honest look at sex as a powerful example of physical
and emotional connection.
There's other fine work as well, including Terry McGarry's "Swiftwater,"
Dave Hutchinson's "All the News, All the Time, From Everywhere," John
Meaney's "The Swastika Bomb" -- to go on would entail listing just
about every story in the book. Live Without a Net is a fine collection
and well worth the attention of anyone looking for high quality, state-of-the-art