“Death, the Sun, the Lovers. Lots of major arcana. Your future's controlled by others. There's powerful people playing with it. You're gonna have to fight to get it back...this is the country of truth. There the Devil, the Star, the Tower. In this country of truth, where your spirit lives, your life still isn't your own. Other stronger spirits, or maybe gods--they've got the say in what happens to you.”
Content warning for talk about sexual and physical abuse and minor spoilers for Bone Dance.
In a city gripped by a single man with a monopoly on energy, Sparrow is what I’d call a Nostalgist. They find old curiosities and sell them to people who can afford to collect remnants of the past in a future that only serves the wealthy and privileged.
“Happiness, in the land of Deals, is measured on a sliding scale. What makes you happy? A long white silent car with smoked-glass windows, with a chauffeur and a stocked bar and two beautiful objects of desire in the back seat? An apartment in a nice part of town? A kinder lover? A place to stand that's out of the wind? A brief cessation of pain? It depends on what you have at the moment I ask that question, and what you don't have. Wait a little, just a little. The scale will slide again.”
After a big deal, Sparrow remembers nothing of the night before, waking up with a killer headache. Turns out it isn't booze. A horseman took her body for their own and now powerful forces are coming for Sparrow. It's harrowing and heavy material and not for the faint of heart.
“Suddenly I could imagine all the things my body might do when I wasn't there to stop it and I felt so vile they might as well have happened. Maybe they had; they just hadn't left marks. I thought about a future full of blank spaces, and I knew I couldn't bear it. If that was the future, I had to escape it.”
I say “them” because, in this young adult cyberpunk novel, fantasy elements are bolted on; often to great effect. The story goes that years back these horsemen created by the government were made to be perfect weapons. They can infiltrate anyone’s mind, pushing their consciousness down—sometimes long enough to kill them outright. They made political changes and shaped the future, engaged in social engineering, topples empires from the inside. But their lives also cultivated a kind of insanity within them. The Big Bang. A horseman turned a key and detonated a nuclear bomb, ushering in a dystopia.
This same government also created androgynous bodies supposedly devoid of thought that were to be used by these horsemen. One of the main points of tension is the origin of Sparrow however, because bodies such as theirs are meant to be empty and waiting. They pass for male or female depending, generally, on the people they’re around at the time. Sparrow leveraged this to fade into the background and make a life in the shadows. They don’t really have close friends and their life, ironically, is in their media collection, which is massive and references pop culture from before the book was made. This past is the only thing they care about. Not their own; the history of others.
“Her skin was translucent pale, the complexion of the rich. Money made an excellent sunblock.”
But that anonymity is no longer an option as they get embroiled in a plot that puts them at a crossroads with horsemen at the other ends.
As the story unfolds, we learn about Sparrow as they learn about themselves. Often painfully. Cyberpunk often puts marginalized on display but this time it’s embodied fully in Sparrow. Performing gender, unfair power dynamics, and forces and powers people really don’t understand but are none-the-less leveraged for their own selfish ends, are placed front and center in the fiction.
“The origin of my body and my mind didn't matter. I, the part of me that learned, that called on my memories, that knew I'd pulled a plant like this before, that had moved this hand to do it, was fifteen years old and innocent of evil or good. Neutral. From here forward, I was blank tape; what would be recorded there, and when, and why, was up to me.”
A major component to the fantasy elements in Bone Dance is Voodoo. The perception of nature parallels the discovery Sparrow goes through as they have to confront their past and rely on others for help in a way they’ve never allowed themselves to do before. Humanity’s view on supernatural forces, specifically in terms of Tarot and its subjectivity, is similarly paralleled. The major chapters are even introduced with tarot cards. But those answers rely on an interpretation which is flawed for the reader (at least, in my own experience) because of the power dynamics we’ve created with capitalism; so this information often acts as misinformation.
“From the lip of the Ravine I could see the Deeps on the other side, hard gray and brown brick on wood on the nearest structures, shading further in to rose, bronze, black pearl, and verdigris in spires of stone, metals, and brilliant glass. The empress of it all, rising from the center, was Ego, the tallest building in the City, whose reflective flanks had no color of their own, but worse the sky instead--relentless, cloudless blue today. The towers of the Deeps, rising in angles or curves, were made more poignant by the occasional shattered forms of their ruined kin.”
Bone Dance is also filled with some of the best prose I’ve read. A character that is unique and intersectional. One in which feels like the handling around gender identity is done well, though I can’t speak to that much. I’m not one for fantasy usually, but this, as with other genre mashups I’ve read lately, has some of the very best work in cyberpunk I’ve consumed. Published in 1991, it’s interesting that there is another example of intersectional cyberpunk that is more progressive than most of what was coming out in that space at that time (and discards some of the problems in the first wave) and was released 2 years before it was declared dead with Snow Crash, no less.
While Sparrow discovers themself, they also have to confront their place in the world via these themes around nature because their body doesn’t fit the societal norms. This is tethered to the notion around popular spirituality being polluted by the environment we’ve created. How can we really have a grip on a truth that might be held in spirituality and spiritualism when our reality is rooted in capitalistic notions that conflict with and destroy nature. It’s also about trauma and how Sparrow chooses to process theirs. And the marks it leaves under the skin, forever.
I don't trust memory, anyway. Why should I? Memories, however undependable, ought to be the stuff on the sand when the tides of experience recedes. As long as they're part of that process, there's something valid about them, something that ties them to real life.