Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan

Don't miss out on other works by Pat Cadigan:
Mindplayers (1987) Book Review
Available works by Pat Cadigan


Pat Cadigan is one of only a very few, but definitely most important, first wave Cyberpunk female writers. While Synners was published towards the end of the Cyberpunk movement, Cadigan was involved from its very beginning, contributing to Bruce Sterling’ fanzine Cheap Truth (1983), and her status had already been cemented by her inclusion in Bruce Sterling’s seminal anthology, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986). Synners won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (1992).

Synners is set in near-future, perpetually congested Los Angeles. The entertainment industry is oversaturated with cheap, pre-packaged thrills, television has nothing on offer but dumbed-down reality TV, and yet there are still independent, counter-cultural enterprises left, such the small rock video company EyeTraxx, which produces genuinely immersive, VR-based experiences. Their days are numbered though. The transnational corporation Diversifications Inc. acquires EyeTraxx, not because it is interested in EyeTraxx’s music business, but because it gives access to EyeTraxx’s small research lab which has developed a new VR socket technology that allows for dream implants, superior to the VR hot-suits currently available on the market. EyeTraxx’s few employees now work for corporate America, among them Gina and Visual Mark. Something is not quite right with these new VR implants: Visual Mark is left in a state of catatonia and a virus is triggered in Diversifications’ computer systems which soon spreads to the entire net.

It is the fluidity with which Cadigan deals with the overlapping issues of gender and mind/body split that sets Synners apart from much Cyberpunk literature. Visual Mark’s character is a case in point. His pursuit of digital transcendence leads him to conjoin with the male AI, Art Fish, forming a clear queer union, a notion that not only shatters Cyberpunk’s male cowboy archetype, but also disrupts Cyberpunk’s idealised, typically masculine disembodiment of technological transcendence. Cadigan’s thoughts on gender fluidity and hybridity echo ideas pursued in Octavia R Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989) and Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy (1991-1997) from the same period, and form a bridge to second-wave feminist Cyberpunk (1990-2005), notably Mary Rosenblum's Chimera (1993), and Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends (1994).

Women drive the narrative on equal terms with their male counterparts, further disrupting the coded gender roles of mainstream Cyberpunk literature. It is perhaps best illustrated again by Visual Mark’s character, a has-been console cowboy who constantly needs to be rescued by Gina, his former girlfriend. His dependency doesn’t terminate once he has migrated online where an ‘eclone’ of Gina replaces his corporeal dependency. The character of Gabe, middle manager in Diversifications Inc.’s advertising department, is also a case in point in regards to the overlapping issues of gender agency and mind/body split. In the beginning of the narrative he is portrayed as emasculated by his career-pursuing wife, pathetically escaping reality and finding solace via a VR hot-suit in online role playing with two female virtual constructs, Marly and Caritha. He eventually manages to break the mould though: finds a new job, realises that life is better lived in the real world and retreats to the countryside.

Even the novel’s AI protagonist, Artie Fish is more of a hybrid, more multi-faceted, than the all-powerful, god-like AIs found in much Cyberpunk literature, such as William Gibson’s Wintermute. This is not to say that he can’t be scary, as evidenced when he shares his insights with the novel’s main group of hackers:

“’Your technique is very characteristic,’ he said. ’I’ve sampled some of your game simulations, tasted them inside out. If you input on a keyboard, I can tell it’s you by your touch, the patterns of your input, the amount of time between one symbol and the next.’ He shrugged. ‘I can tell the difference between you and Rosa, or Fez, or Keely. Or anybody else’”

Artie Fish is a non-institutional AI who probably started out as a virus, and only after several iterations, fed by the Net’s haphazard aggregation of data and algorithms, spontaneously achieved consciousness. As the hacker Fez remarks, ‘We all did it’. While smug, and not afraid to intervene in human affairs like a capricious Greek god, Arti’s intentions are never clear though, nor is he the puppet master who will pull the strings from afar. At one point in the narrative, when he is also threatened by the spreading virus, he hides in an answering machine. And still, after he has joined with Mark, he/it joins the battle on equal terms with the humans.