The title of this novel is a play on the word "synthesizers" used to describe the creators of the near-future's rock videos. The narrative is rich as far as character creation goes, but slow and tedious in that the action is bogged down in all the detail and the story hardly seems to move. The plot is convoluted but revolves around three individuals: Gabe, a rather sad character who works in advertising for Diversifications, Inc.; his precocious daughter Sam, a hacker; and Gina, a synner whose company has recently been bought out by Diversifications. Plus a whole range of secondary characters including the first A.I., Dr. Artie Fish. Diversifications has aquired plans for a new implant to create prerecorded dreams. Gina's coworker Visual Mark, so called because of his exceptionally visual imagination is chosen as the experimental subject. Unfortunately Visual Mark likes virtual reality too much.
As Mark Dery explains:
"For Visual Mark, a virtuoso virtual reality synthesizer, or "synner;" - the body is "meat-jail," as it is for (William Gibson's character) Case. Opting for a brain socket, he plugs his mind directly into the worldwide computer network ("the System"), which enbles Mark to immerse his audience in his full-sensory, rock-video dreams. His baptism into unfettered bodilessness sounds unmistakably like being born again:
"The sense of having so much space to spread out in - a baby emerging from the womb after nine months must have felt the same thing, he thought."
Mark soon decides to remain permanently plugged in, forgoing the bother of removing his brain-wires to eat or use the bathroom. He slows his metabolism to a near halt iti a stunt characterized by a doctor as fakirlike, though his own description of it- "I took the video mainline" - is closer to the mark. Curled up in a fetal ball, guts locked, he calls to mind William Burroughs's self-portrait in Naked Lunch as a mainlining heroin addict:"I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction."
Like Burroughs's "users" (a term shared by smack shooters and Mac owners), Mark - a terminal addict in the literal sense - purchases other-worldly omnipotence at the price of total impotence in the meatworid. In fulfillment of MODFRNBODYs fantasy, he "cruise[s] the wires and molest[s] people's appliances" with impunity: Surveillance cameras (ubiquitous in the twenty-first-century L.A. of the novel) become his eyes, computer console speakers his voice boxes, the measureless vastness of global cyberspace his dominion. Meanwhile, perversely, plaintively, his body yearns for his return:"the meat missed him. It sent out feeble signals, dumb animal semaphore: come back to the nest, little Sheba.. .. If he could have given the disconnect command from this side, it would be over in a twinkling. So long, meat, write if you get work. But he couldn't access any of the commands from where he was. The commands only took orders from the meat, and that poor old meat wasn't about to cut him loose.. . . If he could just get someone... to come in and yank the connections out of his skull."
Ultimately, Mark's prayers are answered by the cerebral stroke he suffers while jacked-in-one of the "intercranial meltdowns that are a calculated risk among "socket people." The power surge transfers his consciousness to the net, enabling him to abandon the despised meat at last. When his old flame and fellow synner Gina peers into his body's dying eyes, watching his consciousness drain away, the computer-bound Mark stares back with what is already a partly artificial intelligence. In a secular gloss on the transcendentalist vision of the self united with the Supreme Mind, he has become one with the billions of bytes stored in the System:[H]e was looking at Gina with what felt like a universe of knowledge within him, everything from every part of the system, databases that outlined every face of human behavior delineated every emotion, defined every word by tone of human voice and told every story.... Joy surged into his configuration, to see so deeply into her even though she was not on-line with him.. .. Moments later he seemed to plummet, out of balance because she wasn't there and there could be no reciprocation. The unfairness of it was truer pain than anything he'd ever felt incarnate."
Cadigan's evocation of the loneliness of the discarnate mind is unbearably poignant. Virtual Mark is terribly, irrevocably alone in his virtual universe, the only human consciousness in a cosmos of information. The sensation of skin against skin is nothing but a memory, saved to disk. Mark can relive it through a surprisingly lifelike simulation, but he is haunted by the nagging truth that a digital re-creation will always be the next best thing to being there: "Now all he had to do was reach for it in his memory; and he was there again, in the pleasure. But in the loneliness, too.'
Visual Mark's transcendental leap is diminished by its egocentrism; rather than dissolving his solipsistic self in a mystical Over-Soul, he has unleashed his all-consuming ego on the infinite (in this case, the System). "[H]is self was getting greater all the time, both ways, greater as in more wonderful and greater as in bigger" he exults, early on. In time, however a painful truth dawns: "Maybe you could make yourself bigger but you couldn't make yourself any less alone."' As Joseph Campbell once observed,"[T]he whole aim is to go past... one's concept of oneself, to that of which one is but an impeffect manifestation.... If you think, "I here, in my physical presence and in my temporal character; am God," then you are mad and have short-circuited the experience. You are God, not in your ego, but in your deepest being, where you are at one with the nondual transcendent."
The System, like all computer-generated spaces, is the realm not of numinous but of the human mind-specifically, memory-metastasized; to become one with such a construct is to disappear into an exteriorized model of one's own cognitive machinery, to become Narcissus falling into reflection. The SF novelist and critic Norman Spinrad finds a moral punning title:"The personal sin [in Synners] is the abandonment of human love in favor of the ultimate solipsistic seduction of total immersion in a virtual reality of which the electronic machineries make you the god. ... In the end, the sin is not that of electronic transcendence but of abandoning human empathy and feeling in the obsessive pursuit of same.
Anne Balsamo reminds us that the transcendental world of cyberspace is one half of a duality whose repressed other half is the mundane meatworld. Reading Cadigan's novel as a feminist narrative about "the relation of the material body to cyberspace," she explores the main characters' interactions with the System, taking special note of how gender implicates the equation.
To Balsamo, the two female hackers, Gina and Sam (a teenager who likes to pummel her eardrums with "speed-thrash") "actively manipulate the dimensions of cybernetic space in order to communicate with other people," whereas Mark and Gabe (a near-future Walter Mitty who spends much of his time lost in virtual reality fantasies) are "addicted to cyberspace for the release it offers from the loneliness of their material bodies." This opposition is dramatized in the novel's climax, when all terminals connected to the System crash, infected by the viral entity created when Visual Mark melds with a mysterious Al. Gina and Gabe exorcize cyberspace via a terminal powered by Sam's body: An insulin-pump device, its needles poked into Sam's abdomen, provides the power. Gina, a synner of no small talent, and Sam, a hacker known for her acrobatic exploits in cyberspace, are SF examples of Hiaraway's feminist cyborgs: In a cybernetic society, their technological skills have won them at least a modicum of personal and political power
Then, too, they represent a more holistic vision of Homo Cyber than (Gibson's) cyberpunk antiheroes such as Case or Molly: Sam's insulin-powered hacking symbolizes a reconciliation of meat and mind, organic and synthetic - Haraway's cyborg politics at work. Synners "offers an alternative vision of technological embodiment," writes Balsamo, "where technology isn't the means of escape from or transcendence of the body, but rather a means of communication with other bodies." At the same time, she warns, the very technologies that create new contexts for wraithlike data bodies simultaneously "enable new forms of repression of the material body." "
Mark Dery, Escape Velocity - cyberculture at the end of the century, pp.252-56
Anne Balsamo, "Feminism for the incurably Informed", in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture/South Atlantic Quaterluy, ed Mark Dery, vol.92 no.4 (Fall 1993)
Synners - from the Pat Cardigan home page
Joshua Conterio and Steven Cook
"Cyberpunks" to Synners: Toward a Feminist Posthumanism? - Shawn P. Wilbur
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