This piece is a bit long. There was no way to put this together without giving each writer time to show their chops.
This is the evolution of style from the hard-boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler down through Gibson and Vinge to my own humble beginnings. Think of this as an archaeological dig, how you describe a new, unknown world. I’d started reading William Gibson on the advice of a young editor who said he was a master of describing scenes. I had no interest in modern writers later than Ray Bradbury but eventually I saw something and, you know, a few paragraphs and you’re completely drawn in:
William Gibson – Neuromancer (1984)
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese. Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a web work of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars. “Wage was in here early, with two Joe boys,” Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. “Maybe some business with you, Case?” Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged him.
The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. “You are too much the artiste, Herr Case.” Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw. “You are the artiste of the slightly funny deal.”
“Sure,” Case said, and sipped his beer. “Somebody’s gotta be funny around here. Sure the fuck isn’t you.” The whore’s giggle went up an octave.
“Isn’t you either, sister. So you vanish, okay? Zone, he’s a close personal friend of mine.”
She looked Case in the eye and made the softest possible spitting sound, her lips barely moving. But she left. “Jesus,” Case said, “what kind a creep joint you running here?
Man can’t have a drink.”
“Ha,” Ratz said, swabbing the scarred wood with a rag, “Zone shows a percentage. You I let work here for entertainment value.”
As Case was picking up his beer, one of those strange instants of silence descended, as though a hundred unrelated conversations had simultaneously arrived at the same pause. Then the whore’s giggle rang out, tinged with a certain hysteria.
Ratz grunted. “An angel passed.”
“The Chinese,” bellowed a drunken Australian, “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing. Give me the mainland for a nerve job any day. Fix you right, mate . . .”
“Now that,” Case said to his glass, all his bitterness suddenly rising in him like bile, “that is so much bullshit.”
The Japanese had already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known. The black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge, whole bodies of technique supplanted monthly, and still they couldn’t repair the damage he’d suffered in that Memphis hotel.
A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void . . . The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like live wire voodoo and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.
“I saw your girl last night,” Ratz said, passing Case his second Kirin.
“I don’t have one,” he said, and drank.
“Miss Linda Lee.”
Case shook his head.
“No girl? Nothing? Only biz, friend artiste? Dedication to commerce?” The bartender’s small brown eyes were nested deep in wrinkled flesh. “I think I liked you better, with her. You laughed more. Now, some night, you get maybe too artistic, you wind up in the clinic tanks, spare parts.”
“You’re breaking my heart, Ratz.” He finished his beer, paid and left, high narrow shoulders hunched beneath the rain-stained khaki nylon of his windbreaker. Threading his way through the Ninsei crowds, he could smell his own stale sweat.
* * *
After reading Neuromancer again for this piece I saw a striking resemblance to Joan D. Vinge’s Cat series, which came out a few years before Gibson’s masterpieces. She also incorporates soaring sections of prose, though her work is often categorized as Young Adult. I see this as more of an emotional innocence, her characters conflicted with familial bonding and attachment issues largely missing from more adult novels. I don’t know if it’s accurate to call this Young Adult. However, soaring prose, great stuff.
In contrast to Gibson’s Neuromancer, Cat, the protagonist, has his superpower taken away at the end of the book. Here’s how it opened:
Joan D. Vinge – Psion (1982)
It started where it ended, in Quarro. Quarro is the main city on Ardattee, the garden spot of the galaxy, the Hub, the Heart, the Crown of the Federation. Somehow it always looked more like the garbage dump to me; but that was because I lived in Quarro’s Oldcity.
My name is Cat. Cat’s not my real name, but it fits, and I like it. I don’t know my real name. They always called me Cat on the streets because of my eyes: green eyes that see in the dark, that don’t look human. I have a face that makes people uneasy. If you want the story of my life, it goes like this: I was standing in an Oldcity alley when I was maybe three or four. I was crying, because the hunger in my belly hadn’t gone away, because it was so cold that my fingers were blue—because I wanted somebody to do something about it. Somebody came out of a doorway and told me to shut up, and beat me until I did. I never cried again. But I was hungry most of the time, and cold. And doing dreamtime, when I had any money for drugs—dreaming the kind of dreams they sold on the street. No excuses. To have dreams of your own is the only way to survive, but Oldcity had killed all mine. Reality was nobody’s dream.
I didn’t have any reason to think it would ever be any different, either. Not at the start—or at least that piece of time where the past and the future come together and catch you in the middle, to make it seem like the start of something.
At the start I was being hauled out of an Oldcity Corporate Security detention center. I didn’t really know where I was going, just what I wanted to get away from. I’d been at the station a couple of days, under arrest for beating up three Contract Labor recruiters who’d been trying to do the same to me. The Corpses had done everything they could to make me miserable; then out of nowhere they’d offered me a chance to volunteer for a “psi research project.” With no sleep and nothing to do but think up worse things they could do to me, I guess by then I would have said yes to anything. So I did.
And so the Corporate Security officer took me outside into the hot, stinking afternoon and pushed me into the back of a mod with winged FTA insignias on its sides. I’d never been in a mod before; the only ones I’d even seen were the aircabs the upsiders used to get into Oldcity and get out again. Without a data bracelet all you could do was look. Without a deebee proving you were alive you weren’t just poor—you didn’t even exist. And without a deebee you stayed in Oldcity until you rotted. I didn’t have one. The Corpse sat up front and said a few words; the mod floated up from the ground and out of the courtyard. I held my breath as it carried us over the crowds, through the streets half as old as time. I’d spent my whole life on those streets, but everyone I saw, looking down, was a stranger. They tried not to look up; I tried not to think about why they didn’t.
The mod reached Godshouse Circle and began to rise even higher: Godshouse Circle was the only place left in Oldcity where you could move between worlds, between the old and the new. We were going upside, into Quarro. I hunched down in my seat as we spiraled higher into the light, feeling a little sick, trying to remember why I’d always wanted to see Quarro. . . .
Quarro was the largest city on Ardattee, but it hadn’t always been. A handful of interstellar combines had split up the planet when it was first discovered. Then after the Crab Nebula sector opened up to colonization, Ardattee became the jump-off point for the colonies.
Every corporate holding on the planet had grown fat off the trade. Finally the Federation Transport Authority moved in to get its cut. It had moved its information storage here, and claimed Quarro to set it down in. Quarro had become a Federal District, a neutral zone where no combine government had official power, but all of them had hundreds of spies and spooks trying to get one up on everybody else’s. Not all the dirty deals that were made in Oldcity were made by criminals. Quarro had become the largest city-port on the planet by a hundred times. Earth lost its place as the crossroads of the Human Federation, and Ardattee became the Federation’s trade center, economic center, and cultural center. And somewhere along the way somebody had decided that Quarro’s old, tired Colonial town was historic and ought to be preserved.
But Quarro had been built on a thumb of peninsula between a deep harbor and the sea. There was only so much land, and the new city went on growing, feeding on open space, always needing more—until it began to eat up the space above the old city, burying it alive in a tomb of progress. The grumbling, dripping guts of someone else’s palaces in the air shut Oldcity off from the sky, and no one who had any choice lived there anymore. All of that I knew from things I’d seen on the threedy, even though I didn’t understand most of it; even though it didn’t make me feel any better.
We were rising through color now, soft, formless, mostly greens. Plants—more plants than I’d ever seen, or even imagined. The Hanging Gardens, somebody had told me once. The Hanging Gardens were Up There. . . .
And then we were up above the gardens, tier after tier of them; moving through the honest-to-God light of day. Towers, shining and flowing, speared the bright blue air on every side, reflecting the sky until it seemed to flow into them and through them. . . . I shut my eyes, giddy and tingling. I looked out again after a minute, at the endless height of the sky and Quarro shining down below me like . . . like . . . Knowing there had to be words somewhere for what I saw, but not how to find them.
The Corpse sat silently with his back against the barrier between us. The city lay like a long slender hand between the bay and the sea, jeweled fingers shining into the haze. Mother Earth—I really live here? I felt the binders cutting into my wrists.
* * *
William Gibson was described as, yes, the inventor of the cyberpunk genre, but also as the one who reinvented the hard-boiled detective novel by bringing it into a science fiction setting. I wanted to dig further back into the past to see where he was drawing his inspiration from. Raymond Chandler was one of the major writers of that genre, and a genius, the way he described a scene. If you’ve watched a Hitchcock film, you know how he would begin with a wide view and go in closer, closer, closer until you’re right in the middle of the action. Chandler was like this, a very strong structural writer:
Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (1939)
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large green house with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.
On the east side of the hall a free staircase, tile-paved, rose to a gallery with a wrought-iron railing and another piece of stained-glass romance. Large hard chairs with rounded red plush seats were backed into the vacant spaces of the wall round about. They didn’t look as if anybody had ever sat in them. In the middle of the west wall there was a big empty fireplace with a brass screen in four hinged panels, and over the fireplace a marble mantel with cupids at the corners. Above the mantel there was a large oil portrait, and above the portrait two bullet-torn or moth-eaten cavalry pennants crossed in a glass frame. The portrait was a stiffly posed job of an officer in full regimentals of about the time of the Mexican war. The officer had a neat black Imperial, black mustachios, hot hard coalblack eyes, and the general look of a man it would pay to get along with. I thought this might be General Sternwood’s grandfather. It could hardly be the General himself, even though I had heard he was pretty far gone in years to have a couple of daughters still in the dangerous twenties.
I was still staring at the hot black eyes when a door opened far back under the stairs. It wasn’t the butler coming back. It was a girl.
She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slategray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pits and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy.
“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to be.”
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.
“Handsome too,” she said. “And I bet you know it.” I grunted.
“What’s your name?”
“Reilly,” I said. “Doghouse Reilly.”
“That’s a funny name.” She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theater curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.
“Are you a prizefighter?” she asked, when I didn’t.
“Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.”
“A — a — ” She tossed her head angrily, and the rich color of it glistened in the rather dim light of the big hall. “You’re making fun of me.”
“Get on with you,” I said. “You heard me.”
“You didn’t say anything. You’re just a big tease.” She put a thumb up and bit it. It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint. She bit it and sucked it slowly, turning it around in her mouth like a baby with a comforter.
“You’re awfully tall,” she said. Then she giggled with secret merriment. Then she turned her body slowly and lithely, without lifting her feet. Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her crack her head on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.
“You’re cute,” she giggled. “I’m cute too.”
I didn’t say anything. So the butler chose that convenient moment to come back through the French doors and see me holding her.
It didn’t seem to bother him. He was a tall, thin, silver man, sixty or close to it or a little past it. He had blue eyes as remote as eyes could be. His skin was smooth and bright and he moved like a man with very sound muscles. He walked slowly across the floor towards us and the girl jerked away from me. She flashed across the room to the foot of the stairs and went up them like a deer. She was gone before I could draw a long breath and let it out.
The butler said tonelessly: “The General will see you now, Mr. Marlowe.”
* * *
After reading Gibson, and Chandler, I realized a flaw in my approach. They described their scenes so well. Though I’m writing a different type of narrative, the young editor was right. I needed to describe my scenes better. My work was vague, atmospheric, a Samuel Beckett novel would provide more of a setting. Though Beckett’s Molloy is one of my favorite books, it’s probably not a good approach to science fiction.
I can’t review my own material, but I can give you a broad view. Another End of the World involves the evolution of consciousness, perhaps a violent one, from the organic to an eternal collective. It begins with Rei:
Another End of the World (unpublished)
The dome was high on its arch over Lowerline, the silver light muted by a mile of holo static. Streets of worn glass reflected the diffuse light back onto a dark line of research labs. They had the occidental look of the pre-carbon days. You could smell the hacker credo. A few lots were left dead to break the monotony, mat slabs of carbon surrounded by fake carbon with the subliminal glow of artificial reality.
The quiet enclave was assaulted by a pink haze, the tireless flickering of the AR environment flaming around it. Holo spheres burned brightly overhead, a light designed to stir everyone to a fever pitch. Their choice, the city gave them what they wanted. The massive data streams from everyone’s interfaces were fed back to them in an endless loop, a resource made to be exploited. Everyone on Lowerline had an angle. For Rei, the AR environment, an amalgam of desire, was creating a new language. All she had to do was find the pattern.
Unlike many of her peers, Rei wasn’t an opportunist. She’d spent years with ENSt attempting to penetrate the static wall of unconsciousness. When she’d finally had a breakthrough, it was to the incomprehensible light of being. In the face of it, she knew that no one would be able to grasp the meaning of their own existence. Humans cannot reach beyond the limitations of their minds, their programming, genetics. Doubtless it’s fortunate there’s a limit to personal power, but the new consciousness that promised to emerge from the AR environment, it would not be human, would have no such constraints. She was both afraid of it and fascinated by the new, untold depths it would describe. Unfortunately, things weren’t so simple.
She opened the heavily tinted glass door of a dead lot and went inside. A row of consoles ran along both walls, their interconnects sprouting overhead in a multicolored trunk line. Everything was left exposed, easy to trace. The consoles were powder black retro; a few blank keypads haloed with grime—more for aesthetics that actual use. Everything not carrying data was murdered out, a black penetrated by pencil-thin ion spots. One fell in front of a holo screen embedded in a carbon wall to the back. Cel, pale-skinned, seemed unnaturally white beneath it. Lean, energetic, the kind of face that didn’t need makeup, she was a dark-haired pixie with green eyes. Rei had found her on the boards, a tech too beautiful to swim with the Nthrop sharks.
A data stream, an enigmatic pattern too organic to be described by cold math, coursed down the screen and across Cel’s slender figure. Rei enjoyed a peaceful moment studying her lithe, young body. The way she stood, it was hard to miss her intent. If things were different, if there had been more time, but there was a bomb going off. Everything was reduced to a jumble of lines.
Cel leaned against the console, torturing her hip with its hard edge. “What is it? You seem restless.”
“You’re not going to like this.”
She glanced at the holo. “There was a flare when you came in. It’s getting worse isn’t it?”
“It’s not coming from the AI.”
“The anomalies, they’re from outside.”
Rei took a step toward her and the room went ultraviolet. Before she could say anything a surge of code blasted through her interface. She fell in slow motion, seeing only the dim light of her own neural circuitry as the data stream ripped through her. She woke to the faint blossoming of perfume. She was on the floor, her head between Cel’s legs.
“Rei? Are you okay?”
Her eyes flickered madly, her vision split into shards of light. She tried to focus, to explain what was happening to her, but couldn’t mouth the words. Holding to the console, she pulled herself up and staggered out of the room.
Cel sighed loudly and signed for a holex. “I’ve got an emergency at Symbology on Lowerline. My coworker’s been hit… something’s in the system.” She looked past the flaring console, the torrent of corrupted code pulsing like the beat of doom.
There was no response. A smudge of dark hair slid past the security monitor and the room went dead. Cel raced to the door but she was gone. She leaned against the doorframe, struggling to come to terms with the new reality. Whatever it was, it meant she’d lost the brains behind their symbology of pattern research and, more importantly, her workplace romance.
The city beyond their quiet street burned in bursts of virtual color. Supersaturated, hyperkinetic, it was an obscenity of color. Every surface was a digital layer, a billion images splayed across the skeletal frame of the crescent city. The streets were jammed with bodies, some of them real, some avatars and holos that glitched as Rei hurried past. The shimmering storefronts down Decatur bent and swayed with the static surge, a pressure wave that swirled the colors into chaotic patterns. She stumbled into a line of love dolls. Her primate brain was comforted for a moment by their programmed responses: sighs, moans, jiggling synflesh—a hand on her ass. The holo above them, a giant love doll, was bisected by a tongue of static. The wave of distortion carried across the street, cutting a placid tile mosaic and the wrought iron that framed it in two. The crowd thinned around her. She could feel their eyes on her, their anger. A blind panic gripped her.
Her first impulse was to get out of the city. She’d just turned toward an entrance to the pollydome when a nondescript van pulled up beside her and three plainclothes officers leapt out.
“In the van.”
They didn’t cuff her at least. She slid into a metal cage in an otherwise empty interior. Through the grill she could see a cluster of stuttering monitors and the cops as they muscled in. As soon as the doors shut, the madness receded. “Is this van shielded?”
“I don’t have a virus.”
“Just a precaution.”
“Where are you taking me?”
Two of the officers glanced nervously at each other but said nothing.
“Do you know what’s causing the distortion?”
Neither of the men reacted, but there was something, the smell of fear.
The van slowed as they passed the stark, white walls of Escalon. It looked like a sanctuary. It was a lie. The long expanse of white, translucent carbon revealed nothing of the turmoil that went on inside. The wall was exceedingly high, she’d never seen beyond it. An officer took her through the security gate. The courtyard was a cubist ocean, designed to placate. Gently heaving blocks of color, illuminated like the sky reflected on black water, tugged gently at a walkway of metal grate with bare carbon underneath. The building was faced with the same white translucent material as the wall, but the entryway was all business: large glass doors that looked bulletproof, set far enough back that they were shadowed by the metalwork above. There was no hiding the fact that it was a research facility. Nothing was going to get out of there, unless it was let out.
The doors opened to a large waiting room with clusters of chairs bolted to a dull gray floor, all of them filled. The air was lethal, fear and sweat and something too sweet: death. Rei, who hadn’t had time to figure out her emotions, suddenly felt a bloodless rage. “Why am I here?”
The officer pushed her past a visibly depressed woman at the check-in desk, who didn’t bother to lift her eyes. A hundred illumin panels were scattering the shadows at a steel-floored examination station, causing the examiner and his chemtech lab coat to glow.
“This is her, the one we just picked up.”
The lab coat moved toward her, his face mirrored in a security pass hanging around his neck. Neither face looked half alive. “You’ve been corrupted.”
“It’s not me, there’s a distortion in the AR space.”
“Yeah, well, today’s a new day, right?”
“Have you loaded any unfamiliar programs?”
“I’m from Lowerline, that’s where I noticed the anomaly.”
As she talked she paced the floor, passing back and forth under the glare of his battered eyes. Her beauty, what destroyed others, was wasted on him, but he knew not to press further. Nothing got past security in the labs. He scanned her interface with a rude swipe and motioned her toward the waiting room.
“Find a seat. It’s going to be awhile.”
A couch freak with a prosthetic arm stood up as she walked past. “You…your fine ass is going in the tank?”
Rei ignored him, and the seat.
“Okay silent bird.” He whistled mournfully, locking eyes with the first person who didn’t look away fast enough. “It must be the end of the world.”
She fell asleep leaning against the wall, just deep enough to feel the sinking terror of the presence that haunted her. The tech tapped her on the shoulder. “The doctor’s waiting.”
In the examination room a disheveled, wiry man with nervous eyes collapsed in a chair in front of her. He wore a battered white coat, the name “Sol” flickering from its degraded holo fabric.
“Am I being held here?”
“You can’t leave until we’ve completed a full scan. You understand, you have to be off the grid.”
“Are all of these people being ghosted by a foreign entity?”
He frowned at her chart. “I’m doing a deep association study. The city’s problem cases get sent here for scans.”
“Am I a problem case?”
“…corrupted data, an unknown interference.” Dr. Sol’s eyes lifted slowly from the page. “If you’ll just sign the release.”
* * *
Something that all four of these works have in common, they’re all the introductory novel of a series: Gibson, Vinge, and I a trilogy, while Chandler delivered a massive seven, with a post-humous eight. They’re also our first glimpse at the protagonist. Gibson and Vinge both give a detailed backstory to describe the character and driving forces. Chandler stays in the scene, allowing a young woman to react to the lead, otherwise we see through his eyes alone. I follow Chandler’s model, allowing only a brief lapse into exposition to support the scene.