Terminal Cafe

Since I’m working on a review of another Ian McDonald novel, Out on Blue Six, I thought I’d bring out this.

Raw Feed (1995): Terminal Cafe, Ian McDonald, 1994.terminal-cafe

A very impressive novel both stylistically and intellectually.

McDonald does more with the implications of nanotechnology than anyone except Greg Bear in Blood Music (taking a wide definition of nanotechnology). McDonald goes right to the heart of nanotechnology’s attraction: its potential to offer immortality. (McDonald calls the notion that “the first thing we get with nanotechnology is immortality” Watson’s Postulate after sf writer Ian Watson who set him straight on nanotechnology’s core importance.)

He bases the central idea of his book around an obvious notion: resurrecting the dead. MacDonald envisions an expensive process of resurrection paid for by making the resurrected dead (simply referred to as the dead) indentured servants with no legal rights or legal existence (nevertheless, they exist in a shadow economy connected to the land of the willing). Like the androids in the movie Blade Runner, the dead are primarily the product of one man, Adam Tessler, and linked to one corporation, Tessler-Thanos. Like the dead of Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead”, the dead of this novel often feel little connection to the family, friends, and lovers of their previous life. As in Blade Runner, there is a fatal meeting between a band of dead from space (androids from space in the movie) and their creator. [In Traveler of Worlds, Robert Silverberg said of this novel, referring to its original UK title, “McDonald did do a version of ‘Born with the Dead’, a brilliant reworking of it called Necroville.”]

MacDonald creates a vivid world of wonderful imagery described with wit as he shows some of the more outré results of widespread nanotechnology running the gambit from virtual reality “bodygloves” (MacDonald has a real knack for creating plausible future jargon slang, and words) which hook molecular feeds up to the body’s optic nerves, inner ear, and the olfactory part of the brain) to shapechanging prostitutes and people engineered to live underwater or glide through the world to dinosaurs analogs running amok over the California landscape. (They are escapees from a disastrous Walt Disney project – the resulting lawsuits shut the company down, one of my favorite background bits.) His depiction of war in the nanotechnology age, while brief, was convincing and well thought out. The only objection I had to his depiction of how nanotechnology would work is I think the speed of some of the processes he depicts is exaggerated, and he seems to forget that all these processes require energy and the dumping of waste heat.

Stylistically, MacDonald gets away with following five friends during the annual Night of the Dead celebration. They do not meet each other till novel’s end (and even then one has died during the night,) and their stories don’t have much connection (with the exception of Toussaint Tessler) or impact on each other. Most seem to involve the central character learning a lesson about life in this age and all reveal a particular element of that age. Bored Santiago Columbar, a designer of drugs and “virtuality”, is taken in hand by a dead woman, an ex-mentor and lover, and thrown into a seemingly sadistic, decadent game some dead play of hunting and being hunted, killing and being killed. But in a world where resurrection is commonly available, murdering and being murdered is not a crime or a tragedy but an aesthetic experience which ultimately provides Columbar the transcendent experience he has been seeking, he learns to revel in the sheer experience of existence in a state of pain, terror, and being without higher thought that drugs and virtuality can’t provide. (The need for real experiences in a world of virtual reality has a counterpoint in Adam Tessler’s observation that the great advances of the Information Age have not been seized on by most people to better themselves or to seek transcendence. I think most gurus of the Information Age overestimate the intellectual curiosity of most people.)

Trinidad seems to learn that, to evoke a feminist cliché, she doesn’t need a man around to fulfill herself or live a complete life. This is learned after falling in with a man hell bent on taking vengeance on a Zoo Cult – a religious group that promises the possibility of immortality – without resurrection.

Camaguey, with the help of a dead prostitute, learns to accept his imminent death and resurrection and to look forward to taking his place in a world of emancipated, immortal, everchanging – yet living with immediacy – dead. Toussaint Tessler gets involved with a group of Freedead (one turns out to be a half-brother he never knew he had) who are part of a revolution to make all the dead free. He helps to kill his hypocritical father, Adam Tessler, who is actually dead but who has hid the fact to retain his power; yet, he will not emancipate the dead. (The one element linking two of the main characters stories is that they become involved in this revolution. The novel is set during one day). The Freedead (the dead who have seized space from the living) tell him of a world where bodies are configured to live in the vacuum of space, of giant constructions in space complete with vacuum trees, of freedom from most of the constraints of the human body.

In a very cyberpunkish section of the book, corporate lawyer YoYo Mok, a woman from a poor background who can’t seem to stand the squalor, untidiness, and limitations of reality and who invests her time and sensuality in the virtual worlds she accesses via her bodyglove, becomes involved in the typical cyberpunk situation of a bloody battle between corporations (events actually precipitated by the dead to further their revolution). I liked her being pestered by the serafino ( a sort of intelligent presence in the computer net that spontaneously arises out of the vast accumulations of data – it’s reminiscent of the loas in William Gibson’s Count Zero).

MacDonald is derivative in certain aspects – the idea of the dead’s alienation from the living, the scenes between Adam Tessler and his dead son are reminiscent of Roy Batty and Tyrell in Blade Runner, the YoYo Mok plot, the resurrection potential of nanotechnology, the idea of serafinos – but those are very minor similarities in a novel told with great skill, wit, and full of interesting technological speculations and their implications for society.


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