Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


[AUTHOR'S NOTE: This review is a hoax! The book Thruput doesn't exist. I wrote this review of the non-existent book in 1986, during the height of science fiction fandom's cyberpunk craze. When it appeared in my good friend Pat Mueller Virzi's Hugo-winning fanzine The Texas SF Inquirer, it fooled many people -- even writer John Shirley, allegedly one of the contributors to the fictitious book! Like the other alleged contributors, Shirley took the piece in good humor, writing Pat a congratulatory letter that even included self-parodying specimen text from the non-existent book's Shirley story. I still wish this book really did exist! -- Allen Varney)


Edited by Ellen Datlow (Arbor House, 1986, 252pp, $13.95)

Reviewed by Allen Varney

[Published in The Texas SF Inquirer #18, August 1986.]

This curious volume was released with a minimum of advance notice, except for a few tantalizing teaser ads in the semiprozines. Now sprung upon an unsuspecting public, it is revealed as a hybrid of two recent trends in sf publishing. It is, if you can believe it, a cyberpunk shared-world anthology.

The so-called "cyberpunk" writers are here in force: The contents page is a virtual roll-call of the authors who have been grabbing awards and headlines for the last year or two. The setting too is a roll-call, of punk themes -- the glitzy technology, the rock-drugs-sex-violence sensibility, the failed romances, the hired super-killers.

Thruput, the "city" of the title, is a high-speed, high- fashion mobile community tearing through the next century. Its members are trendy executives, movie stars, and -- the real celebrities of the future -- "mike" (microchip) designers, who provide plug-in realities as entertainment for the lowly masses. (To answer your next question: No, none of them wear mirrorshades.)

Financed by an unnamed megacorporation, the residents of Thruput travel the world in a perpetual promotional tour: part brain trust, part medicine show, part corporate spy-ring. The avowed motive is to "see everything important, talk to anyone interesting, make every new day less safe than the one before, and encase the whole of human experience in silicon."

It's an ingenious premise, loaded with expensive high-tech glamor (Thruput owns entire, fully-furnished neighborhoods in every part of the world, and the whole community swoops in and occupies any given one for a day or a month). At the same time, the Thruput citizens visit plenty of megalopolitan hellholes, so the punks get to indulge their fascination with grody burnouts too. Something for everybody.

The varying emphases in the stories show off each writer's interests in classy style, without disorienting the reader much; this is presumably the point of a shared-world background. John Shirley leads off with "Racing the Greyhound Terminal Velocity Blues," which sets up the Thruput background while putting its three main characters through a synesthetic holocaust of chemical and mike-induced hallucinations, as they "braintest" a new, flawed mike. The symbolism flies thick and fast here; though the technique is amazing and the expository stuff artfully worked in, ultimately the story leaves the reader far behind, with a bad case of jet-lag to boot. No one but Shirley could have written it, but would anyone else have wanted to?

Of course, the lead story in a project like this has a heavy freight to carry. The subsequent entries fare better in not having to put across the stuff Shirley was saddled with. Greg Bear's "Bootleg," for instance, deals with underground genetic engineers (sound familiar?) who evade pursuing government agents by skipping countries just ahead of the extradition treaties, meanwhile scattering tailored microbes with abandon. They shanghai Thruput's technical experts for an ill-advised propaganda project ("Modern-Day Johnny Appleseeds Bring New Hope For All"), and the results, not to mention the audience reactions, are satirically hilarious.

As a hat trick, Bear finishes with some mind-blowing speculations on the nature of humanity -- and this is only the second story in the book! No one ever accused the punks of thinking small.

There are nicely crafted short tales by Pat Cadigan ("Don't Mention Madagascar") and James Patrick Kelly ("Whips"), both of whom rise -- or stoop, gleefully -- to the opportunities offered by seamy, squalid, utterly degraded Third World urban backgrounds. Kind of uncharacteristic, in a way -- the cyberpunks (or whatever label you prefer) usually like to make America the really grotty megacity, while other countries are portrayed in more favorable terms ... probably a reaction against decades of ethnocentrist sf.

Lew Shiner's "Death of the Red Mask" is ambitious, putting the jaded citizens of Thruput into a "consensual interactive reality" (a consciously clumsy phrase) based on the aging protagonist's pop-culture reminiscences of comic-book superheroes, McCarthyism, and Vietnam. How banal can you get, right? Wrong; this vivid cultural portrait works well as a backdrop for some far-out futuristic character studies, the best yet from Shiner.

Here he shows, as well as anyone in the anthology, how citizens of the future will think differently: a rallying theme for punk writers. When the jaded dowager Vicky Bliss Lindstrom asks the hero (who "performs" the reality much like a musician-cum-tour-guide) to skip the My Lai Massacre -- because it would prove too stimulating, and she has a date later on that needs all her energy -- the reader realizes this story is seriously perverse and subversive. The parallels to Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" are subtly and appropriately drawn.

Count on Rudy Rucker to create something completely different. "Pitstop in the Cerebellum" starts out punk, with the main (and sole) character plugging into a new reality. And then he meets God. Has a nice long talk with It, too. Then the story ends. Not much happens, but it's spellbinding. Anyone noticed that Lewis Carroll is back among us?

There's one more medium-length entry, and then pride of place is given to William Gibson's big-finish novella, "On Edge." Editor Ellen Datlow must have burned her fingers on this manuscript when she took it out of the envelope: It glares with stylistic flash, and sizzles with the friction of jet speed. Gibson seems to have consciously constrained his scene-shifting talents: In a brilliant Hitchcockian exercise, he confines most of the action to an orbital ballistic shuttle, which transports Thruput's citizens from neighborhood to empty, fully-fashioned neighborhood. On the shuttle he weaves an intricate narrative of corporate war, not one but two interlocking love triangles, and -- what else -- high-power cybernetic espionage. Every page is peppered with fascinating jargon, and the pace, like the shuttle, seldom dips below Mach 3. Looks like a nonstop flight to next year's award ballots.

"On Edge" turns out to be a murder mystery, though, as one of the book's most interesting characters gets horribly offed. And then, of course, we have the climactic encounter with -- yes -- a quiet, cultured, impossibly capable comic-book assassin. He was grown in a vat in Neuromancer, he played with voodoo dolls in Count Zero, and here he is again. Say, Bill, think there might be something interesting to say about people who don't kill other people routinely?

"On Edge" turns on all the klieg lights and electric klaxons of cyberpunk, and therefore will probably upstage the real find of Thruput: Bruce Sterling's "The Highest Wisdom." The title comes from another typically obscure Sterling source: William Ellery Channing, one of the founders of Unitarianism. "There are periods," Channing said in 1829, "when ... to dare is the highest wisdom."

Three men from Thruput venture into the ruins of a great European city, looking for prostitutes; they find a weirdly plausible new social experiment based on Thruput technology. The story becomes a finely-tuned comedy-drama about social reform and the post-millennialist impulse.

No mirrorshades, no assassinations, hardly any drugs or rock to speak of -- this story tears down the fancy trappings. Yet Sterling is strongest in the short, neat set-piece, where he enters gracefully, builds to his point, and gets out fast -- as in "Telliamed" or "Dinner in Audoghast." At longer lengths he begins casting envious eyes at Clarke and Stapledon and lets his choice narrative skills lapse; what's intended as Stapledonian grandeur at the end of Schismatrix comes out like a Jacques Cousteau documentary.

In "The Highest Wisdom" he takes chances -- like his giddy communal wireheads -- but within a compelling narrative framework. He makes the rest of the punks look like frothing hopheads, and he carries off this amazing story with aplomb. Think of a Disneyland parade marching the main promenade with horns and neon, and one quiet whistler ambling the side streets. Everyone seems fascinated by the punk parade, but you can hear that low whistle in Sterling's work, and the sights he shows you are likely to linger in your memory after the parade is over.

Thruput wouldn't be a shared-world anthology without an anecdotal postscript explaining the world, and it wouldn't be cyberpunk without a manifesto calling for revolution. Editor Ellen Datlow handles the former well, then lunges aside to make way for Vincent Omniaveritas, Sue Denim, and Candace Barragus, of Cheap Truth fanzine fame. Their Galilean dialogue proves that science fiction is dead, long live science fiction. These guys! They keep shouting louder and louder, hoping to reach the ears of someone -- anyone -- who will argue with them. But who could argue against these terrific stories?

The punks include several first-rate writers; everyone in the ranks is at least utterly competent; really, their only enemy is their own posturing. Nearly everyone in "The Movement" strikes some kind of pose, which is evident in the stories in this book: Shirley is the angry anarchist, Shiner (in his Cheap Truth incarnation) a coy gadfly, Gibson and Cadigan some kind of implausibly effete Lost Generation jades, Sterling the great writer for future ages and the hell with commercialism. Bear is harder to categorize (he doesn't exactly pay his cyberpunk membership dues regularly, anyway), and I'm lost in trying to label Rucker.

It's silly to object to the posing, even though sometimes it seems pretty adolescent. But the point is, if these writers have such diverse perceptions of their Movement, there's likely to be a parting of the ways before long and the manifestos will be issued independently, if at all. That should be the real Schismatrix!

(Postscript: Just to reiterate what I said at the start of this review, this review is a hoax. The book Thruput doesn't really exist. But in an ideal world it ought to, don't you agree? --AV)

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Copyright ©1986 Allen Varney.