Okay, here’s the first in a bunch of serial Chris’s Picks. I’ll try to add some books each week, but frankly, the problem is that there just aren’t that many books that I feel comfortable recommending to my readers. After all, you guys are the kindest and most intelligent people in the world, and you’re not going to put up with crap – well, at least crap that isn’t funny. So I’ll do my best to stay ahead of you, and you can send your suggestions for cool reads. (Again, much as I appreciate recommendations for books that are out of print, it’s not practical for me to pass the recommendations on to the other readers because they will get frustrated and have to hunt you down and beat you senseless, so let’s stick to stuff that’s available. Oh yeah, check the previous Chris’s Picks too, so you don’t yell at me for not including something that’s was listed in an earlier version. Our first installment in the new Chris’s Picks, I’m gonna call . . .
If you’ve read the other Chris’s Picks, you know that I love Cyberpunk. I’m not sure why, since I have no particular acumen with computers, and I’ve never really lived in a big city and experienced urban decay and other cool stuff, but maybe it’s because Cyberpunk did the ultimate role reversal – for the first time really, the anti-social, awkward, alienated nimnoid who had dedicated his life to esoteric, solitary techno-nonsense suddenly became a real hero, cool as a superconductor. Cyberpunk made the geek chic. And I loved it even before William Gibson coined the term Cyberspace (editor’s note: originally this said that Gibson coined the term ‘Cyberpunk’, but he didn’t — and Bruce Bethke, who did, made sure to let us know) and wrote the stunning line, “The sky was the color of TV tuned to a blank channel,” to open up the Cyberpunk Manifesto, Neuromancer. My love of the dark techno-sprawl started with the wet-asphalt and neon movies of Ridley Scott: Blade Runner, Alien, and Black Rain. Ridley Scott before he drove Thelma and Louise over a cliff with only a perfunctory boning by Brad Pitt and Jim Cameron before he became the king of the sinking fucking world and was still doing cool things with killer robots and submarines.
Am I nostalgic for that steamy future, you ask? Nah, it’s still out there. Hell, I may even write my own cyberpunk novel some day. I’ve always wanted to. Sure, I might have to learn something about technology, but it could happen. I could join the ranks of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I could be, ELITE.
In my fantasy, here’s how it goes . . .
Bill Gibson and me are sitting in our office in the skeleton loft of a down-town Seattle warehouse. Bill’s typing up the last few pages of his new novel, and I’m reading the hard copy of it as the laser-printer extrudes it like really flat, really dry toothpaste with Times New Roman stripes. I push up the sleeve of my Kevlar jumpsuit and apply two double latte derms, then take a deep breath as the caffeine rockets into my system.
“Want one?” I hold out one of the derms to Bill, who waves me off, then finishes his book with a flourish on the keyboard.
I grab the last page and read through it quickly, squinting to see it through my shades. When I finish I tuck the page into a zippered sleeve pocket of my jumpsuit (hard copy is so quaint, sometimes you just have to save it for the collectable value).
“Well?” Bill asks, lighting up a Sherman with a laser torch.
“Dude,” I say with great gravity, “I have no fucking idea what this book is about.”
“Me either,” he says, then he cackles and broadcast dials his editors in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo. As soon as the monitor shows he’s connected he says, “It’s done, send the money.” He hangs up and transmits the manuscript file (as soon as he confirms the money is in his account in Switzerland he’ll send the key to decrypt the file, strange thing is, last time he did this his editors insisted that they still couldn’t understand the book. Bill is a fucking genius. Elite. We are pals. ).
“Let’s go next door and gloat,” Bill says.
We don our matching black Kevlar dusters and our Lexan wrap-around shades and head across the wet Seattle street, the buckles on our moto-cross boots jangling as we go. In the lobby of Amazon.com a kid with a blue Mohawk and a face-full of Maori tattoos eats ramen noodles with a pair of aluminum chopsticks while answering phones and tuning the front wheel of his mountain bike. His eyes go wide when he sees us and he waves us through to the elevator. (Poor kid, makes less than minimum wage – lives off of Cup-O-Noodles and Herbal-X, and it will be eight months before his stock options are vested, at which time he will buy British Columbia and have it paved.)
Upstairs Bill and I march down a long corridor, through several security stations, and into the half-lit office of Neal Stephenson and Jeff Bezos. Jeff is shoveling hundred dollar bills into an oil-drum stove that he uses to heat the office – not because he has to, but because he can. Neal is adjusting the hip joint on one of the Amazons. She looks incredibly life-like except for the panel open on her hip. The red PVC corset and thigh-high boots contrast nicely with her fair skin and blue-black hair. She looks bored with Neal’s tinkering.
“Truth,” I say, by way of greeting.
“MMmmmph,” says Neal. As usual, he’s wearing a welding mask.
“How’s it going,” Bill asks Jeff.
Jeff points to a row of trailer hitches he has mounted on a rack near his desk. They are nicked, ground, and generally fucked-up, as if someone has gone medieval on them with an electric grinder. “This test isn’t working, Nano. (In the cyber world I am known as Nano7.) Are you sure that this is the elite standard? We can get them to suck the chrome off, but we can’t seem to get them to stop there.”
Neal Stephenson throws up his welding mask. He’s wearing a nice set of mountaineering shades underneath. “We just have to find the right algorithm,” he says. “Bezos thinks we’ll lose funding if we don’t show a profit soon. Tell him.”
“Jeff, Dude, it’s a metaphor. I though you knew that. I wasn’t really using that as a standard.”
Bezos slaps a half-dozen Xanax derms on his bald pate. He looks like he shaved his head with a dull razor and patched the nicks with toilet paper. But the drugs are working. “Sorry, I’m just worried that the public is going to find out that Amazon.com was formed to construct real Amazons. We can’t afford public consciousness at this point. Not until we finish the marketing profile.”
Jeff’s plan: get enough information on his consumers to target market the Amazons as soon as they are ready for production. Slam-dunk sales at fifty grand a unit.
“Chill, Bezore,” I say. “The public knows that no one makes money in the book business.”
“Except, me,” Gibson says, playing the red laser target dot from his shades over Bezos’ forehead, making him look vaguely Indian.
“Yeah, except Bill.” (Actually, Stephenson makes money in the book business as well, but he doesn’t notice the slight because he’s jacked into the network and is currently memorizing the complete works of Shakespeare in binary.) They have to figure you’ve got something in the wings.”
“Yeah, someone has to lead the assault on the MS campus. Might as well be us.”
“Just the four of us?”
“The four of us and a thousand cybernetic warrior babes,” I grin.
Well, it goes on like that, but you get the idea. The point is, you came here for some recommended reading, and all of these happen to have some cyber-aspect, so here you go . . .
The Ultimate Rush, by Joe Quirk
Present-day cyberpunk that’s accessible even to technophobes this book flat-out rocks. It’s the story of Chet Griffin, rollerblading bike messenger in San Francisco and elite hacker. From page one Chet is in trouble, and what follows is a massive chase through the City by the Bay, major danger from everyone from the S&P 500 to the Chinese mafia, and some of the best action writing I’ve ever read. Quirk should direct movies. He puts the pictures in your mind that well. But in addition, he tells the story in present tense, with an ultra-hip vernacular and rocket pace that I haven’t seen since the first hundred pages of Bright Lights, Big City. In addition to great action, great language, and great characters, Quirk puts in some seriously funny material, without losing his credibility. Allow me to excerpt – a little dialog between Chet and his skateboarder pal, Ho (short for Ho Chi Minn, you misogynists, not the hip-hop Ho):
In a flamboyant mood, I stand against a billboard with snowy mountains and cop my best pose. I shake my shorts to simulate a breeze.
“Who would have thought,” I declare, “that my technological ancestor, the short-skirted roller waitress, would evolve into such a badass as I?”
“I guess you can always tell a badass by his open fly.”
“Oops. Thanks.” Zip! “Anyways . . . Where was I?”
“You were the ultimate badass.”
“Yes, I am the ultimate badass, sizzling the streets, rarely seen as anything but a blur until I arrive, glistening for the comely temps, making mere plank skaters such as you cringe with jealousy.”
“Mm-hm. Chet, let me ask you something. Have you been skating around San Fran all day, making deliveries with your fly open?”
“Of course not,! Surely I would have felt my manhood dragging on the ‘crete, whipping behind me like a meaty cape.”
Anyway, you get the idea. There’s conspiracy, gun play, a lot of chase scenes, major hacking, and all of it delivered at a pace that makes you want to finish what ever you’re doing and get back to reading. I don’t envy Joe Quirk. With a debut novel like this, he’s going to have a tough time with a follow-up. I wish him luck.
The next selection is a little more tame, a little slower, but a fun read nonetheless, especially for those of you who enjoy Vonnegut.
Beautiful Soup, by Harvey Jacobs takes place in a future where everyone is coded at birth by a super-intelligent machine, and that code, all their potential for economic, social, and creative achievement, is tattooed on their forehead in the ubiquitous bar code. Our hero, James Wander, is coded A+, the highest level one can be granted. He’s rich, smart, good-looking, married to the daughter of the most powerful businessman in the world – in short, he’s got it all, and because the machine has determined his code, it can’t be taken away from him. But one day, while in the supermarket with his wife, there’s a terrible accident. James slips on an oily floor and smashes his forehead into a supermarket scanner, where somehow, his code identity is changed from the social elite to a can of low sodium pea soup. Because the bar coding has ended all war and social strife, it is unlawful to surgically tamper with the code tattoos, even in the case of an accident, so James must live out his life as a can of pea soup –and there’s the story. Although not strictly, laugh-out loud funny, this is a very amusing book, and it has that sly social satire aspect that one finds in the work of Kurt Vonnegut. You might call it the sequel to Vonnegut’s 1950s warning about thinking machines, Player Piano. Check it out, Beautiful Soup is different enough from anything else you might read to make it worth the effort.
Finally, wrapping up my Geek Chic selections, check out . . .
Headcrash, by Bruce Bethke, this is a very, very funny book about life inside a high-tech corporation, a cubicle farm, if you will. The cover touts that if you like Dilbert, you’ll love Head Crash, and that’s a fair assumption, but also if you like Cyberpunk, you’ll probably also love the book. Bethke knows the genre well enough to poke fun at it, while working within it. Jack Burroughs is a cubicle slave by day, but in the evening, in the cyberworld, he’s a total badass – or almost. He appears to be the total badass, but in fact, he retains all of the social awkwardness that nerds tend to have in real life. Of course, you immediately love the guy. As Bethke draws Jack into a plot of total cyber-intrigue, he manages to take very funny shots at every goofy, politically correct, corporately ineffective, computer-centric detail you can think of. Not your traditional story-telling, but funny stuff and great observations, plus some fantastic made-up words. (I particularly like “bozons” as a unit of stupidity, much like photons are to light.)
That’s it for now. More coming as I get caught up. Thanks again for the suggestions. I found all three of the above books through readers.