The Speculist: Looking Glass

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Looking Glass

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Looking Glass is not the kind of fiction that generally drives discussions around this blog. It is a violent, introspective, dystopic, and darkly humorous look at a rough future through the eyes of a distinctly maladjusted anti-heroine, Dr. Catherine Farro.

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DISCLAIMER: I have known Looking Glass author James R. Strickland (above) for over a quarter of a century and (at least until he's read the following review) have had the priviledge of calling him my good friend. Therefore, the review that follows should be considered biased and anyone seeking a purely objective source is advised to look elsewhere.

Although it is likely to be shelved in the Cyberpunk division of the Science Fiction section (should your library or local bookstore subdivide the stock that finely), or tagged as such at the online bookstore, such an identification is, at best, a force fit. Knowledgeable readers will have already picked up on the first two of many diversions by this work from the established conventions of the cyberpunk genre, in that the main character is a responsible, female, member of society. Add to this the facts that she is deeply and loyally committed to her corporate employer (at least as much as one can be in this vision of the world of 2025), likes her work, is over forty and wheelchair-bound and you have a central figure that would probably be voted 'least likely punk' in any poll.

Dr. Farro, 'Shroud' to her online co-workers, lives in a world of divisions. The United States has politically imploded, fracturing along political lines into four, almost comic-opera, successor entities; The California Technocracy (CalTech) on the west coast, the Estados Unidos Mexicanos (TexMex) in the southwest, the Southern Canadian Provinces (SCP) in the former west and mid-west, and the United Christian States of America in the east and southeast. Dr. Farro's personal life is divided between her mundane mid-management 'company woman' life outside of the 'Net and her dangerous, exhilarating, powerful online life as the best of OmniMart's team of network defense operators. She has little to do with life outside of the corporate dormitories and even less interest in events outside of her field.

The events of a single hour of an otherwise-normal day at the office spin Shroud's world so far beyond her comfortable sphere that the Shakespeare-quoting computer scientist is, over the course of a weekend, forced out of her (admittedly small) social network, out of her home, out of her nation, outside the bounds of her society and the law, occasionally out of her mind, and even beyond her body on a tragic quest for love, honor, self-worth, and justice. Along the way, she is forced to address what it means to be human and alive, what differences might exist between a person's perceptions of others and those others' reality, and what effects new forms of communications and new understandings of other-ness might have on people and the relations between them.

Strickland's tightly-paced first-person narrative and evocative descriptions pull the reader into the story and along Dr. Farro's paths of personal and investigative discovery like jacking-in to a cyberpunk 'Net and, although sometimes detail is dropped in favor of sheer speed, this 'Net, seen through Shroud's eyes, is a place of terrible wonders.

THE SPECULIST ANGLE

The author addresses, directly or otherwise, almost the whole panoply of physical and social technologies that are the heart and soul of Speculist discourse. Personal access to energy, particularly for transportation, computing power, interpersonal relationships both social and economic, interaction among institutions of law and trans-national corporate entities and the strange spin that the non-space of the 'Net puts on those relationships, the descendents, biological, physical, and digital that might come after us, nuclear steam engines and nanotech nerves, all intertwining and almost always in the worst possible ways. The Speculist outlook, and the Speculist approach to the future is, we hope, guardedly, thoughtfully, and advisedly optimistic, not because we don't believe that such negative interplay is possible, but that, given forethought and wide participation from the outset (capturing the enlightened self-interest of the greatest number of potential users and the greatest possible awareness of the potential scope of innovations) the evolution of technology can be channeled into paths that produce the best benefits for the most people. Well-reasoned dystopia, the class to which some cyberpunk belongs (including the present work), can serve as a Cassandra-like warning even to those of us inclined to optimism, that certain social and technological developments have the potential to cause great harm if badly handled or even badly-conceived. Cyberpunk demands an environment of opportunism, distrust, secrecy, violence and deception, and, because of this dependency, points to the social technologies that divert the course of events from evolving in that direction, altruism (enlightened and aware of potential non-cooperation), trust-building and verification techniques, a bias towards openness without sacrificing necessary privacy or reasonable secrecy, strong preference for seeking mutually-beneficial solutions to problems and a continuum of response to threats and a recognition of both the value of honesty and a commitment to recognizing the genuinely valuable contribution on the merits of those contributions rather than on the merit of the contributors' status. It is in that spirit that I can wholeheartedly recommend Looking Glass as adventure and as cautionary tale and look forward to more from Mr. Strickland in the near future.

RATING: Four Stars (out of Five).

PARENTAL ADVISORY:Although there is much to recommend about this book in terms of strong gender equality, overcoming physical, social, economic, and political liabilities despite differing abilities, and fierce loyalty to social groups in the face of considerable outside pressure, there are also strong currents of violence and evasion of all kinds of authority, a variety of sexual orientations and situations, and, overall, a somewhat bleak take on the effects of gathering large numbers of people in any kind of common effort. If this material were presented in another medium it would carry fairly strong warnings about allowing immature personalities to be exposed to it. Caveat custodor.

Please ask for "Looking Glass" by James R. Strickland (author's website) at your local independent bookseller, or, if you must, hit the Amazon link below.

N.B. - "Looking Glass" is one of two debut titles from Flying Pen Press. (Flying Pen's website) Flying Pen is a new-model publishing house, striving to balance the best elements of traditional publishing, including treating their authors as something other than inkstained serfs, skilled editorial contribution, and worldwide marketing with the best elements of digital, Print-on-Demand, publishing including continuous revision, minimized overhead, and scalability. I look forward to the opportunity to interviewing David A. Rozansky, Flying Pen's publisher to get his take on the future direction of publishing and Intellectual Property distributors in general.

Comments

Jefe --

You're right about dystopias. They can actually be a lot of fun, plus they give us something to respond to. I grew up watching Soylent Green and Omega Man; now I go around claiming that the world is getting better all the time.

I'm intrigued by the future political landscape Jim has created. I would have thought it would be the midwest that would become the christianist theocracy...

Thanks for the nice review, Jefe. Much appreciated.

I would like to counterbalance the dystopic features of my world that Jefe mentions, by mentioning that, in my world, you can be vaccinated against all forms of VD, and against pregnancy as well. Such shots are required for virtually everyone.

Most energy comes from renewable or clean, safe nuclear sources.

You can catch a train to Japan from San Francisco.

Lots of other stuff, but if I get into it, it gives away too much plot. Point is, it's not all bleak. It's mixed. Rather like the real world.

-Jim

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