A Review-Essay of Lucifer's Dragon, Feersum Endjinn & Use of Weapons
Part 1: Fauxplexity
A stylistic tic pervades Lucifer’s Dragon, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s late nineties cyberpunk novel. I’m gonna call it the Disposable Image. Every few pages there’s a sentence which begins “Not that” or “Of course” or “But”.
“Not that the city’s inhabitants would be looking skyward, Karo reminded herself.” (337)The narrative progresses through its internal contradictions. Not that it possesses the artifice of dialecti- WOAH, NOW I’M DOING IT. What’s the verdict on this Disposable Image tic?
“No one had fed him all day, but then no servant could have got through his locked door, not that they had tried.” (342)
(a) If an author emitted a bolus of rubbish, then painstakingly edited it into sense, it might end up looking a bit like Lucifer’s Dragon. “He wasn’t dead, though [...]” (370), etc.
(b) Or a valiant junkie author, struggling in a sluggish stupor to remember why he’s talking about nanites, psi-splicing or the light fur on a katGirl’s bottom in the first place – that would explain it.
Both options have a privileged relationship with junk. In (a), the book is a scrap-heap banged into shape. The irreconcilable connotations are hammered flat, but still visible. In (b), the brain-zotzed author can’t afford to cherish any image, since it’s probably the wrong one. At least, some aspect of it is likely to be wrong. So everything is liable to get junked.
Lucifer’s Dragon is of the in-your-face school of cyberpunk. Bizarre chicks ripple through OTT combat, slow-mo triggered for the round-house kick so we can see the sweat spin off their lower lips. High tech crap is staple-gunned to low tech crap, lit with neon and blown apart by laser-guided missiles launched by werewolves from satellites. Not specifically, but that kind of thing.
And, obv., it’s awesome! The Disposable Image is partly a symptom of its voracity for awesomeness. Lucifer’s Dragon won’t deny itself anything. The downside is, it finds itself having to apologise a lot.
Much of the time, Lucifer’s Dragon is like frenetically buying cheap TV sets, purely because of the blaring lurid and loud and confusing snippets of things they’re playing in the store, and just trashing each one as it breaks down.
Occasionally though, it’s like buying cheap TV sets in order to smash them up. Lara explain. The constant caveat to and qualification of transgression contrives an air of precision. It also lets Grimwood tap into hoary and ethically unsophisticated sources of excitement – sex, violence and, woah! sexual violence – without dispersing the elitist aura, without blunting the cutting edge. This blowjob may be gratuitous, but so is everything in this book.
So I think more often than not, Grimwood is sort of haggling with the reader. We learn to expect that his first offer isn’t his final offer. So he kick-starts things with a Disposable Image – then we negotiate what will actually go in the story. Here:
“But instead she just smiled. Problem was, Angeli wasn’t sure if that counted as a yes or a no. He never got the chance to ask. Simultaneously but unconnected – that is, as unconnected as anything could be in a world defined by fractal logic, quantum need and chaos – the hold beneath their feet blew with a dull crump that echoed off the warehouse walls” (323)The phrase “Simultaneously but unconnected” suggests you might reasonably imagine the events – Karo’s smile and the explosion – are connected. Now, I guess Karo might have grinned at some wee augur of the boom. I guess the explosion might even be triggered by the grin, just as Kwai triggers the Semtex lining his guts by allowing himself to panic (that’s right, Private Reader – because when you’re in the field, THERE ARE NO SPOILER ALERTS!). But really these would be fairly exotic, that’s to say unreasonable, assumptions. I’m pretty sure the only reason why the phrase “Simultaneously but unconnected” is present is so Grimwood can get to say “a world defined by fractal logic, quantum need and chaos”.
Some of the people you will meet in Lucifer’s Dragon:
Razz – naked virgin slut bodyguard
Karo – aristo jailbait
Sasumi – tart with a heart
The only woman who doesn’t quite conform to adolescent fantasy is Passion di Orchi herself, although to be fair, she is a guilty Catholic junkie with a stripper name and “Sending his Calvins the same way as the Levis, Passion took the boy in her mouth, pushed back his hood with pursed lips and sucked him from semi-tumescent to hard in under a second. Her head swayed gently, swallowing Kwai whole and then pulling back, swallowing and pulling back.” (56)
Kwai and Passion’s rather peculiar and momentous tiff in a taxi, around chapter ten, neuters Passion in preparation for more onerous plot chores. Their conversation is conducted with Passion’s colt on Kwai’s brow and Kwai’s hand on Passion’s pussy. With all those strings needing pulling (I don’t mean tampons! Passion is a sort of megalomaniac proto-devil – you’ll see what I mean in a bit), it won’t do to have the chief puppeteer remain a sex object. Kwai, the sulky, unforthcoming and slightly “rapey” teenager, represents the prurient reader’s reluctance in letting her go from that role.
Razz fulfils pornography’s autophagic taxon “the virgin whore” on technicalities, insofar as she is reborn in a vat-grown body, which she straight away puts on the market as a hymen-augmented commodity. Razz is then raped, but remains unperturbed save her emasculating, hi-octane vengeance. This sequence is characteristic of the priority Lucifer’s Dragon gives (through a structure much like the Disposable Image) to deniability. First I am given the space to take vicarious pleasure in sexual violence, but not expressly invited to take it. Then the offender is punished. As Razz is so violent and cunning, my pleasure is available – if I need it – with an admixture of consolation, that sure justice will swiftly follow. This technique is exactly that of red tops like The Daily Star – connoisseurs, through their rape court case reportage, of titillation packed in sanctimony.
To be fair, the male characters are absurd gay teenage boy fantasies, and I must say even I thought the frozen metal floor of the Colnel’s Chrysler armoured personnel vehicle/hover sounded rather appealing.
The larger point is that Grimwood doesn’t sincerely mean all of what he writes. He writes some of it to retract it. So here’s the thing. At the stylistic level, there is project which aims to micro-manage subtext. Lucifer’s Dragon is particularly anxious to deny its sexist subtexts, because it is anxious not to appear old-fashioned. The organisation of this project is conspicuously linear and hierarchical -- conspicuously old-fashioned. Its effect is to spawn an entirely unsupervised level of subtext. Now, this is an exemplary canard which a good chaoplexic thinker is chary of and tries to get around.
Here is a diagram which explains it all:
I’m just going to go ahead and use the word “chaoplexity” in a fast-and-loose fashion; it’s a thumb jerk towards complexity science, chaos theory, systems theory, fuzzy logic, emergence, nonlinear dynamics, attractors, fractals, doop de doop. Hopefully this vagueness can be made into a virtue. I’m not so much interested in chaoplexity in its more mathematical formulations, as in what N. Katherine Hayles terms “chaotics” – i.e. chaoplexity as it has been received, in literature, pop culture, the humanities and social sciences, as it has been reinterpreted, misunderstood and hybridized in those areas (see note 1).
In a related vein, the Disposable Image has implications for how consciousness gets represented. Consciousness doesn’t work in the same way as exposition: you can’t have exaggerated experiences in order to tone them down later. There is a disparity between the semantics of language, governed by sequential syntax, and the semantics of consciousness, organised into gestalts by nonlinear dynamics.
But Grimwood’s characters often feel a bit like they’re following along in their own copies of Lucifer’s Dragon. They almost seem to react to the exposition of their conscious experience. “Not that the city’s inhabitants would be looking skyward, Karo reminded herself.” (337, my emphasis)
Angeli in particular keeps, sort of, perving on people then blushing:
“’She’s dangerous,’ Angeli insisted quietly. He was following Karo up the spiral stairs, trying not to notice how tight the 501s stretched across her ass. Hell, he kept reminding himself, he’d seen a lot more of her than that.” (322)& (kat on a hot tin roof (contra Colnel cock on a cold steel floor)):
“Neph nodded and turned to go, then glanced back and caught Angeli gazing after her with unashamed interest, even hunger. He scowled, but not fiecely enough to hide his blush, and Neph smiled sweely. Her buttocks wriggled slightly as she climbed away up a hot roof, her tail lifting briefly to reveal the pink gash of her genitals as if by accident.I’m probably being a bit unfair.
“‘Enjoying the show?’ Karo asked, sliding alongside. Somehow Angeli didn’t think she’d like the answer. Hell, he knew she wouldn’t. Didn’t like it much himself” (338).
I mean, I suppose a society seeded with psi readers, and injected an unhealthy dose of lapsed Catholicism, could give rise to somewhat unusual streams of consciousness – nervously performing in front of yourself, constantly checking yourself, constantly disapprovingly tutting at what was a nanosecond earlier your own immediate subjectivity.
Plus, it’s not all perving. Plenty of it is elucidation of some kind. Don’t SF characters quite frequently have “data-dump” cognition?
One approach, permitting one variety of elegance, is to obscure the degree to which some data-dump is linguistically reified – i.e., the degree to which it’s something really happening “in” the story. When this is done well, we’re not quite sure if we’re listening in on the character’s thoughts, or a kind of backstory, a kind of extrapolation of things which the character knows, but are too obvious for the character to think about.
Grimwood don’t much go in for dat. For instance, in the heart-thumping action finale, the wayward NVPD officer Angeli pretty explicitly cognisizes several interesting trivia about the production and installation of neoVenice’s photovoltaic sheets. The reader feels that Angeli thought those two paragraphs because of how Grimwood disposes of them: “But none of that mattered a shit to Angeli. They were running out of time” (328-329).
So consciousness gets treated kinda cack-handedly, as though it were easily reducible to more fundamental constituents, and as though plain old syntax specifies the seams at which it can be broken up. The result is that the character’s inner lives sometimes end up sounding lame and unbelievable.
Characters revert to cardboard incapable of sustaining either unabashed lust/bloodthirst or techno-hep insouciance. Mucking about in the guts of the chaoplexic system of consciousness in this way, flouting the possibility of relatively-autonomous emergent properties, is strike two against good chaoplexic thinking.
Strike three occurs at the narrative level. Most of the narrative structures derive from individuals realising or failing to realise their motives in a linear fashion (with a few concessions to non-linear processes). The fake nanobot imagery piped to the UN satellites says it all. For all its superficial trappings of spontaneous order – hackers and refugees cluster in rusty tubs in waters outside of any sovereign zone – neoVenice is entirely a matter of forethought, of prodigious, meticulous, linear, individual forethought. It emanates from one will only, that of mafia daughter and scrubbed-up hippie Passion di Orchi. Accompanied by her colourful sidekicks, she executes her audacious plan. With a few hiccoughs, it works. In this sense, the Passion di Orchi strand of Lucifer’s Dragon is a kind of topsy-turvy heist movie. Instead of nicking something, she founds something.
Niccolo Machiavelli would approve:
“We must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic.”All this demonstrates one important point: folks thinking in linear and hierarchical models can still help themselves to the terminology and the rhetoric of chaoplexity. The measure of your insight into chaoplexity (especially the adaptive complex systems I’ll be talking about in the next post), is not how many times you can say “nonlinear” in a sentence.
Antoine Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warfare, which I just reviewed (probably appearing Septemberish in Vector), relates how the contemporary US defence doctrine of Nework-Centric Warfare is appropriating the terminology and rhetoric of chaoplexity, without straying too far from traditional linear, hierarchical models of organisation.
Rousseau, The Social Contract:
“The man who dares to undertake the establishment of a people has to feel himself capable of changing, so to speak, the nature of man; of transforming each individual, who in himself is a perfect, isolated whole, into a part of a larger whole from which the individual, as it were, receives his life and being; of altering man’s constitution in order to strengthen it; of substituting a morally dependent existence for the physically independent existence that we have all received from nature. In a word, he must deprive man of his own strength so as to give him strength from outside, which he cannot use without the help of others.” (76)When Jon Courtenay Grimwood tells of the founding of a republic, and when its founding and survival seems to depend on ensemble of chaoplexic concepts, the presence of chaoplexity gaffes at the levels of stylistic control, characterisation and narrative (the "chaoplexic lawgiver" figure of Passion di Orchi), diminish our confidence in his foundational myth. This storyteller, we begin to think, does not feel chaoplexity in his bones.
But he could still be right.
Note 1: The vague and loose terms are preferable anyway, because I’m really talking in these posts about how the concepts of chaotics have advanced outside their core mathematical applications; especially into literature and very especially into utopian science fiction. No super-advanced grasp of chaotics is thus required, and in fact I haven’t got one either! But a very brief primer or reminder on chaos may be helpful.
In a linear system (for example, x = a + b(y)), there is proportionality between cause and effect. Whenever x is increased by 1 unit, y is increased by b units. Most systems in nature are nonlinear: the weather, animal populations, doop de doop. Such systems cannot be predicted over the long-term; because effects are not proportional to causes, minute details may blossom colossal consequences (you know, the “butterfly effect” ). One possible behaviour of nonlinear systems is chaos. Chaos is a behaviour which appears random (“stochastic”) but isn’t. In fact, chaos is completely deterministic and can be generated by very simple rules. The motion of a pendulum conforms to linear modelling, but the motion of a double-jointed pendulum is chaotic. Chaos just can’t be predicted or controlled using those rules. So even in the short-term, chaotic systems must be understood holistically or not at all. End of primer/reminder!!!