Synners

by Pat Cadigan

Cover image

Publisher: Grafton
Copyright: 1991
ISBN: 0-586-21147-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 435

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Now, this is cyberpunk. I think Cadigan hits every convention I associate with the genre: a dark future world, blurred lines between reality and on-line worlds, hacking, street punks, corporate destruction of what's good about the world, anti-establishment and anti-authority attitudes, drugs, weird mind trips, and some difficulty figuring out just what the point is. Synners is a great example of everything I like and dislike.

On the good side, Cadigan, unlike many cyberpunk authors, has some grasp over how the technology actually works. Synners is perhaps best known for the ubiquitous presence of computer viruses in the future world, and despite missing the evolution of viruses from downloaded data to self-propagating exploits, the treatment holds up quite well fourteen years later. This isn't quite as impressive as it might sound, as I was reading non-fiction books about viruses in 1990 and earlier that were predicting many of the same things (and happening quite a bit sooner than they did), but it's still well-done. Even more notably, Cadigan mostly avoids the standard cyberpunk confusion about where programs run, keeping them (for the most part) running on actual systems and unable to just randomly move around a network. There's still a bit too much portability of executable code for realism, and a few magic programs are exempt from all the rules and start moving arbitrarily through the network, but there's at least a plot-driven explanation for some of that.

Cadigan also handles corporations realistically rather than making them pure evil. They have stupid bureaucracies and want to make money in the cheapest way possible. They aren't out to destroy the world. Much of the plot revolves around an independent music video (of a sort) production group that gets bought out by a media conglomerate that's also working on a far more efficient and immersive neural interface, a scenario that sets up plenty of conflict without needing shadowy plots and government schemes. I found the thought of an advertising-focused corporation with direct neural access to the minds of consumers realistic and plenty creepy.

The main downside of this book is that I found it rather hard to follow in places. The main characters were frequently high on a wide variety of drugs, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, and Cadigan spends a lot of time describing their altered perceptions. This rarely works well for me, and there's enough of it in Synners that it drags, particularly combined with the very similar scenes describing the visual experience of music. They make sense, given the importance of music videos to the plot, but just weren't very interesting to me.

Synners also suffers from too many viewpoint characters combined with a lack of a clear indication of who the story is now following after scene shifts. I'm not sure why authors like to do this; whatever stylistic gain there is from having it slowly become clear whose viewpoint is shown seems dwarfed by the irritation of not understanding what's going on. At least once all the viewpoint characters are shown, Cadigan doesn't keep adding more, but a dramatis personae would have helped tremendously in following the first part of the book.

While the book takes a while to get going, things start moving about halfway through and I did enjoy the plot. The technology gets a bit hard to believe, but Cadigan's world has amusingly realistic computer problems, and I could believe in the results of the plot. Some bits of technology were quite inventive, and I liked the main characters (Sam, Gina, and Visual Mark were my favorites). I think the best part of the book is the description of the network crash, cutting back and forth between the bar and the freeways.

Recommended if you really like cyberpunk and don't mind the attempts at textual description of weird visuals and intoxication. Otherwise, I found it worth the effort, but it's slow going in places.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-06-25

Last modified and spun 2015-04-20