Cyberpunk isn’t an easy genre to write in. With the contemporary and fantasy genres, authors have a little leeway to be lazy and let the reader make assumptions about the setting, or go balls-to-the-wall and do whatever they want. They won’t get far being lazy, but it’s still possible to half-ass a book and still qualify as “fantasy”. And with a contemporary world, all you have to do is describe what you see.
Cyberpunk, though, you have to know your stuff. If you want your story to have authenticity, or even qualify, you have to address all kinds of conventions and predictions: where technology is headed and how it can go bad, pop culture trends, urban evolution. Veer too far into nihilistic desolation and you’ll end up in Mad Max territory. Stray too far into modern pop culture and creature comforts, and you’ll just time-travel to next Thursday. You have to hit all the right notes to make the secret passage to the cyberpunk vault open. And even then, without innovation or doing anything to put your own spin on it, you’ll find nothing inside but a limp retread.
Luckily, Matt Cox managed all of the above and then some with vivid details, some extremely strong characterization and a robust, powerful, complex female protagonist, all tied up with a jene-sai-quois that gives it the deliberate, introspective charm of a 90’s anime like Ghost in the Shell, Dominion: Tank Police, or Akira.
While still buckling the reader into a trashy, augmentation-addicted environment familiar to cyberpunk readers, he’s brought his own touch in the introduction of paranormal elements, the familiarity of a police procedural, and a refreshingly cynical look at our own tech-soaked world. The skies are cluttered with floating ad-bots wrangled by smug drone operators that project ads across windshields, while Fifth Element food skiffs peddle dubious ethnic dishes made out of soy man-kibble. Civil-rights-bestowed androids called “dolls” populate corporate offices and bordellos alike. Do dolls dream of electric suffrage?
The paranormal elements are what really make Division Zero stand out against your usual cyberpunk, rendered with the kind of irreverence that made ghost movies like Ghostbusters and Frighteners such a hit in the 80’s and 90’s. Some ghosts chitchat with the protagonist on the city bus, while others surprise her in the shower or burst out of walls to attack. She keeps them at bay with her own version of the proton pack—a psychically-generated energy whip, and they get even older and scarier when she chases them into the dilapidated ruins of our own time period.
Where the book really shines is in the depiction of its put-upon protagonist Kirsten Wren. Brought up by a violent, anachronistically religious mother, the telepathic and telekinetic prodigy Kirsten has developed severe self-image issues that cause her to push away potential suitors and pre-emptively intimidate potential bullies. This twisted-up knot of anxiety is chugging along at all times, leading up to a cathartic mid-book climax worthy of Hitchcock, but until then our Neuromancer Carrie mitigates her worries in deep philosophical discussions with her cop partner, the enigmatic Dorian Marsh, who never seems to eat. Dorian is the center of his own mystery, a tidy little riddle that peppers the book with frustrating clues and makes his relationship with Kirsten all the more satisfying.
Other than the pre-requisite indie misspellings and misused words, my only problem is the style and word choice, but that might be more subjective than anything else. There’s too much engulfing in water and engulfing in sewage, and placing things upon tables and upon chairs. Sometimes the scene bogs down in visceral detail and long-legged sentences. Writing lyrically is fantastic in scene-setting (especially in one of his many beautiful chapter-openings), but in action sequences and dialogue-heavy interaction, it bogs the writing down and makes it grind. Attention is lavished on inconsequential details while important environment info is omitted, resulting in blurry backgrounds and microscopic closeups on hands and facial features. When people eat, I can almost feel them chewing, smell their breath, feel their spittle on my face, but I have almost no idea what the restaurant looks like. Several times I found myself at the end of a paragraph and had to go back and read it again. A fellow reviewer called it “wordy”, and while that seems like a harsh assessment to me, I plead the Fifth.
Cox also has a weird sense of time progression, and sometimes effects happen before their causes (“Kirsten doubled over the assassin’s hand as he slammed a fist into her gut and knocked the wind from her lungs”, to paraphrase), which makes the “movie” in my head skip around erratically, making me have to re-read sentences again to get a clear picture.
I have a feeling that the time and word-choice issues I mentioned above are probably because Matt adheres to “the rules” perhaps a bit too fiercely, forcing his writing into contortions to avoid things like passive voice and word repetition (which ended up happening anyway). Passive voice is uncool, daddy-o, but you are allowed to use the word “was” every now and then.
Summary: Regardless of the fact that my tastes run to a leaner voice, this is a good and outstandingly fresh book—Matt is far and away one of the finest character sculptors I’ve ever seen, and he’s not bad at plot either. And since there are so many themes and threads woven in—ghostbusting, mental powers, cop-show bravado, Bladerunner—it’s easy to picture it your own way because there’s something there for everybody.
I think if one approaches D0 as more of a character study than anything else, one can more fully appreciate the bonsai-like care he’s taken to developing the people that inhabit his dirty neon world. If you’re a fan of writers and makers like William Gibson, Luc Besson, Neal Stephenson, or Masamune Shirow, this book is worth every red cent.