In the 1980s, when cyberpunk was a rallying cry instead of a marketing label, there was a group of five young male writers and one female. Playing the role of Trotsky was Bruce Sterling, sometimes called The Chairman. Lenin was, of course, William Gibson, and the rest of the brigade consisted of Lewis Shiner, Greg Bear, Tom Maddox, Marc Laidlaw, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley (yes, I know that adds up to more than five — trouble was, at the time, that being labeled as a part of the group could be as damaging as not being part of it.) The female, and believe me, not a token by any means, was Pat Cadigan. The problems with the name cyberpunk were legion, one of them being that only one of the group could make much of a claim to being a true punk. When the punk, John Shirley, wrote about the underside of society, his descriptions were just a little more vivid than those of his colleagues. Rucker and Bear may have been jockeying for the position of most technically literate, but Shirley was by himself when it came to streetsmarts.
Shirley’s cyberpunk trilogy, A Song Called Youth (containing Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra), was filled with a feeling of punk rebellion, with a feeling that the fat corporate cats would one day get their comeuppance when the youth rose up in defiance. Compare this with the novel that become cyberpunk’s seminal work, Gibson’s Neuromancer, wherein the world’s going to hell no matter if you are rich or poor, young or old (the one character who has a hope for something better is the non-human). In his short stories, Shirley continued to express that underlying theme that youth would some day win out.
Ten years later, John Shirley returns to SF with a new novel. Silicon Embrace recalls some of the aspects of his earlier trilogy but also shows that Shirley is not the same wide-eyed punk that he used to be. In those years, Shirley has started a family and kept food on the table by writing for Hollywood rather than New York. Given this, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Silicon Embrace resembles a post-apocalyptic punk version of the X-Files.
Yes, the aliens are among us, and they have been for thousands of years. The fractionalization of the U.S., including a second Civil War, has resulted in the world of 2017 resembling John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A., complete with megalomaniac warlords and ex-military commandos. Caught on the wrong side of the California border, Quinn Helden, a young alternative media journalist, and his crew join forces with a vet who has held his complex against the barbarian forces. When they escape, they stumble across the new Area 51, the secret agency working with the aliens to announce themselves to the world, as well as announce the evil aliens. But in true paranoid X-Files fashion, the agency isn’t what it seems to be, nor are the aliens, nor is our hero, Quinn.
After the first 100 pages, I nearly quit this novel. The opening, in the lawless world of post-Civil War California, was raw and disturbing, more horror than SF. I’m glad I didn’t stop, though, because once the characters leave California, the science fictional portion takes center stage and only rarely takes a break. And the ending, for what seemed a novel about a world gone mad, had such hope that I was startled to find that someone had not switched books on me when I wasn’t looking.
I really should not have been surprised. Shirley has tricked me before. When I thought I had him pegged once as a gritty punk rocker turned cyberpunk turned horror writer (for example, the first six stories in his Scream/Press collection, Heatseeker), he threw in a P.G. Wodehouse SF pastiche (“Quill Tripstickler Eludes a Bride”). I expected his novel A Splendid Chaos to be a Neuromancer clone and it was strikingly non-cyberpunk, instead SF about aliens that resembled the 70s more than the 80s. I should have known that Shirley wouldn’t play a simple song.
Silicon Embrace, although startling, has several flaws, however. For one, it is in desperate need of an editor to get Shirley to drop the pop culture references (including one to his own rock band) in favor of descriptions with meaning for everyone. Some of these references, including the ones to Chris Carter and the X-Files, are too cute, and break the suspension of disbelief needed for SF. Shirley should know better.
Published by one of the genre small presses with the highest production values, Silicon Embrace is a beautiful book to look at. Once you get past some of the ugly parts in the beginning, it is a beautiful book to read, as well.
[Finished 1997; originally published on SF Site]