reviewed The Zero Signal by Rick Wayne (Science Crimes Division, #1)

Rick Wayne, Rick Wayne: The Zero Signal (Paperback, 2021, Independent) 5 stars

In the decades after tomorrow, the intersection of emerging technologies like AI, gene editing, and …

Cyberpunk for this century

5 stars

At the risk of being quotable: this is the post-cyberpunk book a post-cyberpunk world needs.

I'm not sure I should go into plot here. The blurb on the book page is enough of an introduction, and plot details might spoiler something.

What compels me to write is genre and subtext.

In terms of genre, the easiest comparison to make is Cyberpunk, and if anyone would ask me for a modern Cyberpunk recommendation, this book is easily at the top of my list. But various people have called it Biopunk, and Dave Higgins called it "hard weird" - as in weird fiction, but also hard sci-fi.

The thing is, all of these are apt descriptions. You do have your ubiquitous 'net and artificial limbs - but they're not shiny neon and chrome. You do have gene manipulation, which in some ways is actually a central theme to the book - but you will not find much mention of commercialized genetic enhancement. You do have megacorporations with questionable amounts of political influence, but they do not feature more in the plot than Unilever does in your life - i.e. being both ubiquitous and almost entirely invisible. You do have weird fiction elements - which I won't spoiler - but they're plausible nuisances in the setting rather than things of wonder.

Finally, yes, there is a very hard sci-fi angle to the book, and having spoken to Rick at length about it, it is in some senses the core of the novel. But at the same time, there is nowhere a huge "what if?" question posed on which the entire setting and plot are tenuously balanced.

As usual for him, Rick delivers a novel that is incredibly hard to categorize, because even in checking off a ton of genre markers, it just refuses to slot neatly into place. And that is the reason for it's 5-star rating; I'd give it more if I could.

In my opinion, it is this unwillingness to conform that makes the setting so compellingly plausible. I mean, look around where you are. BookWyrm users tend to love books. We know we can escape into some world in one book, and an entire other in yet another. We go to work or school, which is one world in which we play a particular kind of role. We have family, where we play another. In our circle of friends we may be in the role of the person that holds everything together, or is on the fringes.

Each one of us occupies multiple worlds every day in our lives, sometimes simultaneously. So how can we expect our futures to be as easy to grasp as other novels would lead us to believe?

What Rick has created is a setting and genre that permits for all of those different worlds to coexist, in parallel as well as intersecting. Because that is what the things are like right now, so that is how they should be in the future. Life does not generally get simpler.

Of course, something like this could become an unholy mess. What ties it together is the interaction between the protagonist and sidekick. Each occupies a slightly different world, and having to band together to solve the plot's central mystery means they each have to explain their complexity to the other. In doing so, Rick provides a thread for the reader to follow. Rick's skill is that this does not translate into chapters full of exposition, but weaves seamlessly into the overall narrative.

What you're left with in the end, is the central mystery on the one hand finding a solution, in a very engaging and entertaining format. And on the other hand, you'll likely go away thinking that of course this is what the future will look like, because all alternative options seem frustratingly naive in comparison.

I'm a huge fan of Cyberpunk - there's something that taps straight into a part of my brain about it. Back in the 80s, I was imagining all the ways computers could change our future that Cyberpunk tropes satisfy. These days, the neon, chrome and chiptune soundtrack are pure nostalgia indulgment - but I'm old enough to admit to that and enjoy it anyway.

But if I'm asked what Cyberpunk should be - because it's supposed to make us a little uncomfortable with the near future, and it's supposed encourage something of a punk attitude towards it - then this book is the definite answer. It's just not a simple one.

I can't wait for #2.

(Oh, he's )