Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review - Virtual Death by Shale Aaron

Short review: In a cyberpunk work in which technology has collapsed, a girl used to die for the entertainment of others and may have to again.

Computerless world
Shooting to bring gun control
Death's not virtual

Full review: The first, and most important thing that one can say about Virtual Death is that the deaths that Lydia Melmoth is famous for are not virtual at all. The apparent contradiction in the title is important because it seems to be a theme that runs through the entire novel. In short, Virtual Death, a cyberpunk novel in which computers have all but vanished from society, depicts a world in which everything seems to have been turned upside down.

While most cyberpunk novels depict a gritty, harsh world in which the haves are separated from the have-nots, and the 'net serves as the battleground between massive corporations that control every one's lives and the heroic plucky hackers who try to subvert the system, Virtual Death turns many of these conventions on their head. As noted before, computers have all but vanished from the future world, driven to extinction by widespread viruses that effectively annihilated all the information technology in the world - the damage was so extensive that public pay phones have seen a resurgence since no one owns a cell phone any more. Though the government, which controls all the remaining computers that are carefully segregated from outside connections, is ostensibly the villain in much of the book, it is mostly ineffective, people drop out of society and live in dumpsters and are ignored, shooting someone in a nonfatal way has become an acceptable form of political protest, and so on.

Into this hyper violent world steps Lydia Melmoth, who is famous as the girl who dies. Basically, a death artist takes a drug and temporarily dies as a form of entertainment. They are then revived before their death becomes permanent, although most death artists suffer brain degeneration known as "gray rot". Lydia is famous for making her name as a death artist in a time when it was officially illegal, and for dying more times than anyone else - seven times - although at the time the story takes place she is officially retired. Her drift into post-artist obscurity is interrupted by two events: a young celebrity death artist named Quigley is set to break her death record, and Lydia's mother's political activities as a banjoist catch Lydia, her brother and her only friend in their wake.

The banjoists are another contradiction: anti-gun activists who seek to reduce the number of gun related deaths by shooting and killing gun store owners, gun friendly politicians, and anyone else they consider to be in any way related to providing guns. Lydia is tagged by the government for prosecution and possible execution because of her connection to her mother, a prominent banjoist. She flees with her brother Stamen and her roommate, the diminutive Frankly. In another set of contrasts, Lydia's brother is freakishly tall and Frankly is a midget. Frankly is a depressionist, effectively the opposite of a stand-up comedian who entertains people by depressing them with stories about his awful life. However, Frankly is constantly pursuing fame and fortune, and for much of the novel has very little to be depressed about, while Stamen seems to be depressed all the time. Frankly is also a "nowist" who insists on speaking only in the present tense, which gets very annoying in short order.

Eventually Lydia runs across a fan and talent agent named Fenester who arranges for her to seek refuge with the only group strong enough to stand up to the government: the television studios who want her to promote Quigley's upcoming record breaking death. Her mother, with secrets of her own, also wants Lydia to do this, for reasons that are entirely related to her mother's political goals. (Lydia's mother is another contradiction: a mother who views her daughter as nothing more than a political tool, and an anti-government terrorist whose favored child is a government worker). Fenester turns out to have contradictions of his own, relating to both his sexual proclivities and gender. The story sort of careens about as Lydia bounces from place to place, hoping to find refuge and in interludes, describing each of her death experiences and the strange and unique hallucinations she had during each of them. Or perhaps they were not hallucinations and Lydia has been granted a view of the "other side". The book is carefully ambiguous on this score, reflecting Lydia's own confusion and providing an explanation for why she chose to "go under" so many times.

In the end, the story gets incredibly complicated as numerous competing interest groups crop up and double cross and triple cross one another. Then it sort of sputters to a stop, which is one of the reasons why, despite having some extraordinarily interesting ideas concerning the nature of the imagined world in which the story takes place, the book is only slightly above average. The other reasons are the entirely annoying nature of Frankly's character and his "nowist" diction (although he was clearly written to be annoying), and the use of an invented pseudo-hacker style of spelling (replacing, for example, the word "no one" with no1 and "to", "too", and "two" with 2 in the text; this gets tiresome quickly). Lydia finally does virtually die at the end of the novel, which finally has something occur that is not a contradiction, and gets answers of a sort to the questions posed by her death-state hallucinations. Despite a somewhat less than convincing ending, the novel is still pretty good, and an interesting take on the cyberpunk genre.

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