Friday, 21 March 2003

Pat Cadigan: Tea From an Empty Cup (1998)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 1148

Tea From an Empty Cup takes advantage of the establishment of the cyberpunk subgenre to concentrate on one aspect found in many of its stories, leaving most of the standard ideas lightly sketched in. It is a novel about the way that people might interface with computers in the future, and is in fact almost entirely concerned with virtual reality multi-player games.

When police officer Valentin is called to an artificial reality (AR) arcade to investigate a murder, she doesn't expect to become involved in murky dealings connected with some of the most popular online scenarios (things like "post apocalypse New York"). She enters the particular scenario being accessed by the victim when he died, even though deaths due to being killed in AR are mainly an urban myth (and suggestion in his mind didn't cut his throat), as does Yuki, who is (independently) looking for her missing lover. Both these characters are AR novices, showing the contempt for it that non-gamers already tend to feel for those obsessed with computer games.

The purpose of these two characters is rather too clearly to allow Cadigan to describe her ideas about AR. Two novice users is overkill, and this combines with the fairly unimaginative ideas about how things might develop from today's technology to make the novel sometimes feel like a journalist's article about the MUDs, MOOs and the like. It is a severe problem with Cadigan's writing here that Tea From an Empty Cup frequently reads as though it is a poor copy of one of these articles. I have rarely read a science fiction novel whose extrapolation of future trends is so unimaginative.

Most cyberpunk novels take a selection of ideas from the genre and put them together, a technique which can provide depth to the story. But the concentration of Tea From an Empty Cup on just one means that it seems shallow compared with the religious ideas in Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive or the cultural satire of Stephenson's Snow Crash. The shallowness in Cadigan's writing is exposed even in the subject she concentrates on by the fact that it seems dated already in comparison with Neuromancer, a novel written the best part of two decades earlier.

William Gibson may think that Cadigan is "a major talent" (as quoted on the cover, this is what persuaded me to try the novel, along with the interest of the idea of a criminal investigation pursued jointly in AR and reality). If Gibson is right, little evidence for it comes across in this novel.

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