“THIS REVOLUTION IS FOR DISPLAY PURPOSES ONLY.”
Last Tango in Cyberspace makes culture a character to be explored in equal measure as the main character. Lion, an empathy-tracker, or em-tracker for short—uses his unique talent to consume curated content provided by clients and extrapolate a future; not at an individual level, mind you, rather as a glimpse at the cultural significance regarding the content in the future. It’s an amalgamation of genetic drifts which hardwires an em-trackers’ pattern recognition. Hacking their intuition to do a sort of cultural prognostication.
“A small robot standing on a busy city street corner, looking around. I SEE HUMANS BUT NO HUMANITY.”
Em-trackers methods vary with the person and there are very few known trackers, at least in so far as ones operating in the same capacity of Lion, doing this very niche work for a living. A very good living at that.
Lion, in particular, is rigged to make these deductions from words and logos, though it’s gestured that each tracker would be completely different. He processes the content he’s given, reacts, and tells the client if he sees a future or not. It’s usually a binary answer; a “yes” or a “no.”
“His journalism days are behind him. No longer does he get paid for the plot. Now, he’s paid for saying yes or no—the sum total of his contractual obligations. His work in the world reduced to one-word responses. When, he wonders, did his life get so small?”
Superficially, this book is about Lion being contracted by a major corporate entity to take a look at a crime scene and apply his talents… but this is a very unorthodox application of his gifts and one which ends up taking him down a rabbit hole. Ostensibly it’s a murder mystery wrapped up in noir trappings, something people might expect from cyberpunk. This is where the clear iterations from the sub-culture come into play, however. Within the tropes of a pleasurable whodunit, there’s much more to be consumed.
“You can’t scrub everything,” says Lorenzo. “Information gets what it wants, and it wants to be free.”
A specific trope that follows noir elements in cyberpunk, the investigator in over their head, is a unique vernacular used. There is typically a colloquial dialect that is foreign to the reader and makes them feel a fish out of water. The reader interprets what these cultural elements are in the future with the remix of certain words or the use of completely fictional words, from time to time. Interestingly, the dialect used in this novel is pop culture itself. Not in the very limited sense of Ready Player One, where games, gamers, and gaming is the language—but in landmark moments in cinema and literature that is reasonably absorbed into the general intellect of society. The most common being the novel Dune. Lion carries it with him all the time and is the cornerstone for the explanation of Lion’s gifts and poly-tribalism, a central component to the way Lion looks at culture in the story. People are intersectional beings with complex identities. Tracing the identity back to its origin is possible with technology these days. Appealing to particular facets of the identity can be a predictor for if something is to be successful and thrive or be consumed by another identity that dominates it.
'“Shifting culture requires a confluence of inciting incidents. Something directional that leads to a tribal fracturing and reknitting. Often shows up in language first. In music. Fashion. It can feel a little like hope.” He points at the images. “This doesn’t feel like hope.”
I think this approach both hinders and helps Last Tango in Cyberspace. For one, it’s an interesting use of the trope which proved satisfying to read for me, personally. I had never read Dune but it is explained as needed. I never felt lost. However, I could see some people who had read the book and disagree with the cultural impacts asserted in the text having a problem with most of the book, as it draws from it heavily at a personal level for Lion, as well as a fundamental shorthand for what is happening in the plot; ingrained in the theme and a permanent fixture.
“Words are just bits of information, but language is the full code. It’s wired into every stage of meaning-making, from basic emotions all the way up to abstract thought. Once you can speak a language, you can feel in that language. It’s automatic. It creates empathy.”
The frenetic pacing that accompanies cyberpunk literature is replaced with a sort of artificial acceleration with the structure of the book. Lots of very short chapters, in other words. This allows for expounding on the cultural aspects that are conveyed during the text. You notice what Lion notices. These details becoming foundational to the extrapolations he draws on later. What this means though, is the pacing is somewhat sacrificed in order to get the reader to do the same types of pattern recognition Lion does during the book. It’s clever, but a slow burn.
”Hybridization, he figures, is destined to become one of the ways this generation out-rebels the last generation. How we went from long-haired hippie freaks to pierced punk rockers to transsexual teenagers taking hormones.”
For me, the slower pace made it feel reminiscent of Takeshi Kovach in Altered Carbon. Envoys in that novel “soak up” culture in order to fit in and navigate foreign cultures. Lion’s talent feels like it takes that idea and explores it more thoroughly, engaging with it more, and this method allows you to soak up the information as well. If it were frenetic some of the details would be lost, I feel.
“Lion glances back at the pigeons. Sees a flicker he didn’t notice before. Remembers that the de-extinction program was a failed effort, realizes he’s looking at a light-vert. An AR projection of an almost. The bad dreams of a society disguised as a good time.”
A concept continually being reiterated in the novel is “living the questions.” Something that also subverts first wave cyberpunk, the characters of which are generally on the spectrum somewhere, unlikeable and/or anti-social, and live on the fringes of society in a sub-culture of some kind.
Lion, however, is an embodiment of empathy. He is in stark contrast to those protagonists, relating to most everyone and so can assume their point of view. To the extent, in fact, he resolves to not use his talents on other people.
“We ache for this feeling, but it’s everywhere. Booze, drugs, sex, sport, art, prayer, music, meditation, virtual reality. Kids, hyperventilating, spinning in circles, feel oneness. Why William James called it the basic lesson of expanded consciousness—just tweak a few knobs and levers in the brain and bam. So the drop, the comedown, it’s not that we miss oneness once it’s gone; it’s that we suddenly can’t feel what we actually know is there. Phantom limb syndrome for the soul.”
Last Tango in Cyberspace feels like a love letter to cyberpunk while updating it. In Neuromancer, for example, Gibson’s Rastafarians were a source of major critique. They are also featured in this novel but the author instead traces the cultural aspects and importance of Rastafarian influences on western mainstream culture. It felt as though it was making a point to correct the caricature found in the original source material. Whether or not it succeeds I leave up to someone who’s more educated on that and can speak to it—but the intent is clear.
“the failure of language.” “It’s a creative destruction. Out of that failure comes culture. Out of culture comes desire. Out of desire come products.”
This led me to the only thing I didn’t like about the novel and a personal pet peeve of mine: authors phonetically using foreign language in dialogue. It’s usually done as a form of cultural appreciation and authenticity, I’m sure… but it results in the author needing to clarify what is being said regardless and it just feels uncomfortable. It’s pretty much always from a Western perspective on a minority culture and usually is the default assumption of what the culture sounds like. Lion is able to converse with them for plausible reasons, often not the case when this is encountered, but it’s always left me feeling squeamish. Just tell me they have an accent, placing them in whatever area if that is relevant.
“…what is genuine emotion and what is business strategy. The modern condition.”
As Lion navigates the mystery and ping-pongs about the globe consuming the clues surrounding the mysterious death the reader, too, is engaging in this meta-language. Both in terms of how it subverts or remixes cyberpunk tropes, as well as the cultural context and information Lion imparts as his process. All of which is given weight. Hooking the plot into these details down the line as it comes together.
Most interestingly of all perhaps, the author goes out of their way to state that all of the technology exists in the world today, or is in a lab somewhere being worked on, at the very least.
“The car sees emotions. Signals have been pre-programmed, down to the basement level, below Ekman’s micro-expressions, getting to the core biophysical: heart rate variability, blood oxygen levels. And all from pointing a laser at a tiny vein in the human forehead. The car sees emotions, yet feels nothing. So morality too has to be pre-scripted into the code. Aim for garbage cans and not pedestrians; aim for solitary pedestrians rather than large groups. Empathy programmer, he’s heard it called, someone’s job now.”
This makes the future we are presented with prescient in the same way Neuromancer did with the advent of the Internet and the rise of technology in the ’90s. But where technophobia is firmly rooted in first wave cyberpunk. Last Tango in Cyberspace is making a virtue of humanities peculiarities, some of which we barely grasp. While the Internet is not something we may understand, so too are we learning the same of our own minds. Empathy, after all, is not something we gained from modernity.
“Rilke knew what was up. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, one distant day, live right into the answer. What’s truer than that?”
And empathy seems to be the thing we desperately need right now, rather than the consensual hallucination that allows us to connect to others while, at the same time, enabling us to dehumanize each other.
“Last tango in cyberspace…the end of something radically new. Copy that.”
“Pitch black again. Like someone extinguished an angel.”
Thanks to Netgalley for providing the unedited version ahead of time. in exchange for an honest review. You can find Last Tango in Cyberspace for purchase here.