“In all the complexity born of sheer duration…that’s what ultimately belongs to me, to anyone: beauty, and loss.”
Coming off some earlier cyberpunk works such as Mindplayers and Synners, Pat Cadigan’s Fools, while not placed in the Mindplayers series of books (labeled Deadpan Allie), feels like it takes place within the same world. The most exciting elements of Mindplayers can be found in it. Most predominate are memories as a commodity, the consumption of which comes with a high akin to drugs, so long as the memory is relatively new to the mind. Cadigan extrapolates societal paranoia and deliberately conflates it with individual, subjective memory. Years later Strange Days poses the same question: are you paranoid enough? Only in Fools, when you can buy memories along with the pop culture you’re consuming, it’s perhaps an even more terrifying thing to consider.
“How about you, madam? You may think you’re paranoid. But are you paranoid enough?”
The main character is at the crux of an intriguing exploration regarding a personal identity and how much of it is entangled in their memories. Especially if those memories do not belong to that person. Fools keeps the reader guessing. You’ll never be 100% sure who the main character actually is.
She may be an actress who downloads characters, embodying them for a time and then expels them from her mind. She could also be a memory junkie, addicted to the high. And, possibly, the actress is just one such collection of memories, a persona. While the junkie is the “real” person.
“What’s that old saying? Art is long. But life is short. And memory is my past that changed.”
Just when you think you’ve got a hold on what is going on the rug is pulled out from your feet. Again and again, with each part of the story as it unfolds, a new twist is introduced that brings into question what you thought you knew.
As the main character, as I’ll refer to her as, since who knows her real name or persona at any given time, is coming to grips with what may be happening within her own mind, she is also being pursued by people who have their own relationships to the people occupying her mind. It’s a very satisfying, twisting story that reveals more of what happened gradually. Introducing more complexity to the story at just the right times, so it is never overwhelming when it easily could be.
Fools navigates different areas of the city in riveting fashion. Surfacing each persona in the main character in a fish-out-of-water type situation that the reader can easily identify with. As she flounders, so do you. Personhood and embodiment are explored at a different angle than previous works. The reader taken along for the ride.
“You looking for truth?…Or just keeping a secret?”
Cadigan also continues to show distinction from other authors at the time by not putting poverty and marginalization tourism, as well as hyper-sexualization—things typically associated with cyberpunk during this time—at the forefront of her work. There is also no love interest central to the character. There is no giant megacorp with the boot of the neck of the impoverished for shock, either.
“People who mouthkiss are capable of anything.”
Instead, low life aspects feel more authentic and engaging. Each new notion regarding marginalization parallels a direct experience from the character. Even when one of the personas is an escort, and beauty is definitely depicted as a commodity being leveraged by those with power, it isn’t shown in a male gaze way. It’s merely a fact of life for people and something tied to the identity of the main character(s).
Cadigan occupies a beguiling, at times, intersection of cyberpunk because while she is often called “The Queen of Cyberpunk” and is sometimes in academia thumbed for not being directly feminist—she is also undoubtedly, never really invoking tropes typically associated with masculine authors in the genre. Her characters are competent. They are not defined by gender and are not sexually liberated and non-monogamous. Sex takes a back seat and never used solely to depict marginalization. The exploration of the idea is what matters principally in her cyberpunk works.
“Truth is cheap. Information costs. Can you afford information? Or only the truth”
Another device used to significant effect is the changes to how the text is presented. It is changed up to help the reader with the transitions from the different identities surfacing in the main character. Fonts change. Sometimes they are in bold; sometimes italicized. Even still, however, this is a much more complex narrative than the typical cyberpunk books. It will challenge you, as it uses these changes in the story to drive forward the plot at a much more frenetic pace. The changes also work to further ground the reader in the headspace. It’s clever and fun. The cadence of each character’s “voice” adapts to the textual switch ups, really driving home the differences in each one.
Unfortunately, some of my favorite elements of the plot need to be kept mysterious because they reveal some of the plot. Make no mistake, Fools is one of the most compelling cyberpunk novels. Even more so when you consider how unique it is for the year it was released: the same year, in fact, as the release of Snow Crash, 1992.
Ironically, Fools was another fantastic addition to a plethora of books that prove the sub-genre was just hitting its stride. Some of its very best contributions began just when the founders of the sub-genre declared the cyberpunk movement—not the sub-genre—was dead upon the release of the satirical, post-cyberpunk Snow Crash. At the time, it seemed to mark the commodification and absorption of cyberpunk into “mainstream” science fiction and pop culture. Read the two side by side, however, and you’ll find none of the elements in Snow Crash that were satirized.
In hindsight, various, typically more marginalized, authors met with limited commercial success at the time were already busy iterating on cyberpunk. Fools is illustrative of that fact, and appropriately titled.
“Funny how that works, how you can lose someone by finding her.”