March 25, 2007
Voice of the Whirlwind
Author: Walter Jon Williams
Category: Cyberpunk Books
After writing Hardwired Walter Jon Williams wrote this novel, set 100 years on. Perhaps it’s a comment on the possibility of a plateau in technological development but nothing much new has come along. Many more people live in space and a larger number of planets have been colonized. Interstellar travel has also been developed but it is only used by a small number of people. A certain amount of genetic engineering has taken place, though not with any great success. In Hardwired there were a couple of characters whose minds had been recorded and transfered into new bodies when their old ones died. This is still going on 100 years later and Ettienne Steward bought clone insurance just before leaving to fight in a war. He’d been a gang member in the urban hell of Marseilles and was looking for some rigidity in his life so he signed up with Coherent Light as an “Icehawk”, a sort of SAS style special ops unit. Obviously when the clone insurance kicks in after you die they make you a new body and, by some appalling means, overwrite whatever nascent consciousness is in it with your last recorded scan but Steward never updated. When he dies and his Beta is born his memories are 15 years old. It’s at this point, the birth of the “Beta”, that the novel starts.
Steward finds that his Alpha has been murdered and that the war on Sheol had been a Vietnam style disaster that ended with the arrival of the planet’s original inhabitants, the aliens referred to as “the Powers”. Then in quick succession his therapist, Dr. Ashraff, is murdered and he receives a mysterious video message from his Alpha, giving Steward tantalising details of his fatal last mission. This is the murder mystery that, in part, sustains the novel.
Then Steward meets Griffith, a friend of the alpha from the Icehawk days, who offers him a convenient way to get into space and find some answers to his questions.
“The Competent Man” is one of the major bugbears of the 1980’s Cyberpunk authors. Seeing themselves as literary and avant garde they rebelled against the military and paramilitary figures who dominated precyberpunk novels in the 1960’s and 70s’ who would save the world while the thankful common man (and/or lady) looked on helplessly in awe. The underlying idea (never actually lying that far underneath of anything) was one of obeyence to a sort of unquestioning and invulnerable facist military elite.
The typical Cyberpunk response to this was a character like Deckard in Bladerunner, an apparently faded cop, brought back for one more case straight out of film noir. A complex guy (or android perhaps) in a morally complex world. Case and Molly Millions, not out to save the world but to survive and maybe make some cash along the way. Turner in Count Zero was William Gibson’s attempt to write a “competent man” and push him to pieces. Morally complex people living in difficult, complex worlds where it was hard enough to know where the next meal would be coming from let alone what “right” and “wrong” might mean.
Steward is the “Competent Man as lunatic obsessive”. His belief in the purity of his own actions has made him totally corrupt. He has been indoctrinated into believing that anything is justified in the cause of achieving his objectives, that his “mission” is more important than lives or property or friendship. His attitude is that of the terrorist, indeed he is actually used in the book as a paramilitary terrorist to further one policorp’s goals but, perhaps because it is written from his point of view, the book treats him as a hero. This brings me to an impossible question:
…are we supposed to admire Steward?
When I read the book as a 17 year old I did. I guess this is the appeal of extremist causes to the young, the admiration for living without compromise. I only realized recently, while rereading the novel, what an asshole Steward is. There are small cracks in the narrative through which we get a glimpse from the other side. Dr. Ashraff, Steward’s therapist immediately after he is born has this to say about him:
“You fell for their program.” Steward felt surprise at the apparent feeling in Dr. Ashraf’s voice. It was hard to remember Ashraf ever being emotional about anything.
“Coherent Light taught you martial arts and zen,” Ashraf said. “Zen of a certain kind.”
“Mind like water,” Steward quoted. “The unmeaning of action. Union of arrow and target. The perfection of action, detached from anything except the spirit.”
“They were programming you,” Ashraf said, “with things that were useful to them. They taught you to divorce action from consequence, from context. They were turning you into a moral imbecile. A robot programmed for corporate espionage and sabotage. Theft, bomb throwing, blackmail.”
Steward was surprised by the harshness in Ashraf’s voice. He turned from the window and looked at him. The doctor’s fingers were steepled in front of his mouth, but Steward saw the anger in his eyes. “Let’s not forget murder,” Steward said.
“No,” Ashraf said. “Let’s not.”
“I’ve never pretended to be anything but what I was,” Steward said. “I’ve always been honest about what I’ve been.”
“What’s honesty got to do with my point?” Steward felt himself tense at the attack on Coherent Light, at the things that still provoked his loyalty. He forced himself to relax.; Coherent Light was dead, dead in the long past. Mind like water, he told himself.
“You’ve been programmed to divorce corporate morality from personal morality,” Ashraf said. “You’re a zombie.”
Steward frowned at him. “Perhaps,” he said, “morality is simply latent within me. You’re awfully combative for an analyst, you know.”
“I’m not here to analyze you. I’m here to give you a crash course in reality and then kick you out into the world,” Ashraf carefully flattened his hands on his desk. He looked up at Steward.
Mind like water, Steward told himself. Trying to stay calm.
It didn’t work.
There’s also the relationship with the Alpha’s ex-wife Natalie, who see’s through him. Whether it’s Alpha, Beta or even Gamma she knows what Steward is.
The reason that I focus on morality at all is that it’s one of the key issues in Cyberpunk. Science fiction is always much more a reflection of the time in which it’s written than the future. The 1980’s were a time of moral disinterest and one of the key concepts of Cyberpunk is the idea that if a thing can be done it will be done whether it’s humane or not. It’s one of the things that dates stereotypical Cyberpunk fiction because people in general are much more aware of, and resistant to, the potential horrors of new technology now. Not many people believe that the future is inevitable anymore. Voice of the Whirlwind is set in a morally ambiguous universe but the above passage humanises it.
Like Hardwired before it Voice of the Whirlwind is a piece of first class commercial writing in the Cyberpunk genre. Where it’s predecessor replaced the film noir stylings of William Gibson with a western theme this is a murder mystery espionage thriller in space. A damn good one in fact.