While I continue to write up new material, I thought I’d return to an associate of Philip K. Dick, K. W. Jeter.
Raw Feed (1999): Noir, K. W. Jeter, 1998.
This is the first Jeter I’ve read.
I enjoyed it, but I found it an uneasy and not totally successful amalgam of satire of what some might call “corporate capitalism” — though Jeter doesn’t use the term, horror, and straight sf.
Jeter was a friend of Phillip K. Dick and wrote, in two novels, sequels to Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the movie Blade Runner and this friendship and work shows up here.
There is the characteristic confusion of humans and their simulacrum in the “prowlers” who evidently serve, in Jeter’s future, as risk-free sexual surrogates who gather sexual experiences in the Wedge and download into human minds.
Unlikeable protagonist McNihil (whose name, a play on nihilism, is the first clue to the satirical nature of the narrative) is, like Dick, an opera buff. German abounds, including an explanation as to the derivation of McNihil’s old job title – asp-head (a German pun on ASCAP – whose copyrights McNihil ruthlessly enforces — translated back to English). A sort of Dick-like (in the sense of a largely ignored and prolific author of paperbacks and lover of music) author and idol of McNihil shows up in Turbiner. (Jeter wryly notes that authors were particularly “mean bastards” in regard to copyrights.)
Turbiner, after he betrays McNihil, lectures the latter that betrayal is the very essence of the noir world McNihil reads about In Turbiner’s novels or sees through his modified eyes which turn the world into a film noir.
There’s a lot to like in the novel.
My favorite section is the middle section where the origin of the asp-heads is detailed via McNihil’s pursuit of a small time book pirate and the preparation of the resulting trophy. The information economy did, in this future, largely come to place. As a result, intellectual property theft is viewed as literally killing people by removing their livelihood. Therefore, death is a fitting punishment. McNihil, in his point by point review of the origin of asp-heads, notes that even in the 20th Century there was the phrase: “There’s a hardware solution to intellectual property theft. It’s called a .357 magnum.”
Actually it’s decided that death is too good and too quick for pirates.
Their consciousness is preserved by having their neural network incorporated in various devices. (Turbiner likes to use stripped down spinal cords for speaker wire.)
This sounds like a cyberpunk notion but, in other parts of the novel, Jeter takes a swipe at such hacker/information economy/internet cliches as information wanting to be free (McNihil destroys a nest of such net hippies) or the future economy being based on information. Villain Harrisch sneers at the notion stating that information can be distorted but atoms – and the wealth they represent – endure.
Still, his novel is chock full of the high-tech, low-life that characterizes cyberpunk.
Jeter, like William Gibson, is enamored of the biochemistry of the brain. This is a world ruled by corporations on the Pacific Rim (the unexplained Noh-flies prevent air travel so a railroad runs the complete circuit – Arctic to Antarctica – of the Pacific Rim).
Jeter has some wonderful bits in his anti-capitalist satire: the revived, almost zombie-like “indebted” – humans brought back from the dead to varying extents to pay their bills. (Some are little more than big, cockroach-like garbage scavengers with ads on their shells.) The pervasive corporate management style is modeled on pimps dominating prostitutes. (Sex workers are sometimes “cube bunnies” from the hinterlands of civilization – the American Midwest). Harrisch schemes to market the ultimate product: TOAW – “turd on a wire” – nothing (but an addictive nothing) with no packaging.
Jeter’s critique of capitalism leaves out one important element of the free market: sellers can’t cheat customers indefinitely and repeatedly. (More honest competitors will emerge and/or customers will refuse a second transaction). [Well, you can set up network effects and technological and legal barriers to entry, so Chicago School of Economics; theory may not predict real world effects.]
Jeter has a real talent for horror (and has written horror novels) with his weird bits of living, damned speaker cords, a “polyorgy” of dissolving bodies in a pool of fire extinguishing chemicals, and a bizarre, clever take off on the pop culture status of Prince Charles’ remark that he wanted to be his girlfriend’s tampon (a sentient, stripped down brain and spinal cord is implanted in a woman). [I leave the younger readers to do their own research on this tawdry matter.]
Yet the horror, satire, cyberpunk, and straight sf parts don’t mesh in a consistent or entirely comprehensible way.
Why do the fire extinguishing chemicals lubricate than dissolve the bodies of the orgy members? How will the “virus” of TOAW be spread? Is it even a traditional virus? What exactly goes on in the Wedge – real or virtual sex fantasies?
I think I know the answer to most of these questions but Jeter is, at times vague, and vague in a way which jars with his extrapolations (satirical or not) and the noir he aspires to imitate.
Still, I liked the novel which didn’t quite work.