Something a little different in the alternate history series — a partial satire of alternate histories.
Once upon a time, I was a fan of Alexander Jablokov — still am, but, as with many authors, I’m a couple of novels behind in his output.
I’ll just have to take my younger self’s word for how much I liked this novel. I remember almost nothing of it.
And that, after all, is why I made notes on it in the first place.
In some ways this novel – Jablokov’s self-described attempt to do a cyberpunkish film noir – is Jablokov’s best novel. The story has the needed suspense and mystery to not only do credit to Jablokov’s attempt at homage but also to compel the reader to read more.
The themes include, but are not restricted to, Jablokov’s usual death and art as jazz musician and seller/installer of black market mental prosthetics, Peter Ambrose, is forced into the role of detective as his former fellow veterans of the Group (a secret research project in the Devolution Wars – Jablokov has a knack for suggesting complex historical events in the background of his stories with just a well-chosen phrase or bit of nomenclature) begin turning up dead. Naturally, for a film noirish story, he meets a woman and falls in love with her.
I liked what Jablokov did with some fairly off the shelf components of modern sf. Nanotechnology is used to redecorate homes casually overnight. Brain modifications (a lá George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen series) are common with implanted abilities, personalities, neuroses, and psychoses. Jablokov seems to be satirizing some elements of modern science fiction, particularly the alternate history and cyberpunk aesthetics. In this novel’s world, constructing alternate worlds is a craze. Ambrose’s friend Sheldon has constructed an elaborate time line where jazz took a different path and rock-n-roll was never invented. He fabricates supporting artifacts like photos and musical instruments and scores. Fellow Nimbus member Hank Rush, utterly devoted to transforming himself into a machine, ridding Earth of man, and a cohort of a ring of extorting environmental terrorists, has fake fossils which purport to document the evolution, from the Cambrian era, of his machine evolution. Cyberpunk is wryly poked fun at with passing references to a fad involving a fetish for industrial era relics including motor oil in coffee and on penises. Jablokov also makes the valid point that a computer Net is not a magic pathway to education and enlightenment but just another pathway for more of the same with “datadork” foolishness, error, rumor, and conspiracy theories.
Thematically, at its most basic level, this is a novel on the perils and human toll (in alienation, loneliness, depravity, and death) of a mechanistic view of the universe – or, more correctly, an extrapolation on the consequences of mechanistic thought as applied to the human psyche. Narrator Ambrose supports himself by modifying brains to spec with everything from custom neuroses to increased associational abilities to increased sexual potency. He sees his clients brains as “complex gray oatmeal” and, as his ex-wife Corinne notes, he compulsively views others as little more than machines to be modified. Yet, he has resisted most modifications to himself – with the large exception of blocking his old memories of the Nimbus project and reconstructing a new personality – and realizes that his modification don’t “force the universe to make sense … [or] make you a better human … just a more efficient one”. Self-modification is practiced by several characters. Anthony Watkins, another Nimbus alum, habitually takes psychoactive drugs and deliberately induces psychoses in himself. Rush is utterly devoted to becoming more machine like and moving off world. Nimbus alum Lori Inversato has extensive modifications allowing her to change her body, sex, and personality at will. However, if psychic and body manipulation can be voluntary, it can be coerced too. Helena Mennaura, another Nimbus messenger, has constructed an elaborate fantasy life of marriage and a family complete with supporting artifacts (again, a sort of play on a personal alternate history) and has accepted, as part of her employment conditions, that she can only consciously recall her research when at work. Priscilla McThornly, Gideon Farley’s mistress and Ambrose’s lover, was covertly brought up to be a high price prostitute.
The methods used are social and psychological with no high tech but the goal of creating a personality by coercion is the same. Gene Michaud, as head of a security company, socially manipulates urban gangs in order to develop them into mercenary troops. Rush wants to force humanity to become like him and stop infecting Earth. Jablokov seems to thematically be saying that these scientific tools can be used, like all technologically and science, for good and ill. Sometimes the destruction is deliberately self-inflected as when Mennaura chops her mind to induce aphasias. And, of course, the novel ends on the note of Linden Straussman possessing, in sort of demonic fashion, the recently modified brain of Gideon Farley and somehow controlling, even after death, the Nimbus group. Of course, with manipulation comes deceit which also is engineered with the tool of this society. Corinne becomes an unknowing lock to Ambrose’s memories; Michaud is spied on by a supposedly inert machine of Rush; Mennaura is blackmailed into giving the tainted “virt” to Ambrose for implant in Farley.
In this world where everything – including the human soul and mind – can be broken down into bits for processing (the evil fallout of present tech trends) the only salvation, Ambrose seems to say, lies in honesty as he learns to confide in his ex-wife and current lover. It’s also significant that one of the moral compasses of this novel is a cop, Amanda TerAlst who, as an “Inherent Potentialist”, is philosophically opposed to modification. In short, this novel is thematically sophisticated, perhaps more than any other Jablokov work.
Yet, the novel didn’t quite work at the end. Jablokov does a little bit of handwaving at end to explain the book’s murders. I accept the psychic possession of Farley via the Straussman tainted implant. Yet, the explanation at to how Straussman was kept alive in the minds of the Nimbus Group was incomplete (especially given Ambrose’s technical expertise – Jablokov could have given some pseudo scientific explanation). It’s a notion that doesn’t mesh well with Straussman’s personality being resurrected accidentally because of TerAlst’s investigation. (I bought Straussman implanting tropism and different gifts in the Nimbus Group to be used later, but what “crimes” they committed and blamed on Straussman is not clear.) The philosophic point of the ending is that chance plays a role even in this mechanistic universe. Straussman dies in an accident; Priscilla’s transformation to whore is derailed by incest with a brother; TerAlst revives Straussman’s pysche by mistake; and Rush says that chance drives evolution; Farley’s original personality emerges to commit suicide.