Black Glass by John Shirley (2008)

November 17th, 2009

I finished off John Shirley’s Black Glass, "The Lost Cyberpunk Novel" this morning. Shirley is one of my favorite writers so I sent off to get a signed copy. I’ve been toting it around in a plastic bag trying to keep it in good shape.

I play blues harp and there is running joke that any blues song is "same words; same music; different song".  This may be happening with the Cyberpunk sub-genre. Shirley is able to pull off Black Glass as a gigahertz high frequency image of a shattered future, but just barely. The novel has entirely too many of the standard memes and tropes to stand out against the earlier works in this field. Of course, you read a book like this because you can’t get enough of those memes and tropes.

I just finished an early Shirley book, City Come a Walkin’, which is pretty much the same book. There is a formula that will tell you how many folds you can make in any piece of paper. If you look at both of these books as origami, City Come a Walkin’ is an intricate spider with many folds, whereas Black Glass is so densely folded that it is approaching the tearing point, and you can’t quite make out its shape. Coming in at just over 300 pages, the novel might be too intense for too long.

I know people who can’t read Cyberpunk – it’s too hard, too dense, and too fast. They’d never be able to read Black Glass.

I don’t mean to say that Black Glass isn’t a good book. I enjoyed it and I will be reading it again. It does, however, seem out of its place in time. In 1985 a book like this would be mind bending. In 2009, it is a period piece. Now, I read mostly old stuff, but it doesn’t seem right that Black Glass should be classed as an older style novel. Unfortunately, you can’t write about emergent systems intelligence, direct stimulation virtual reality, or gritty dystopic futures without seeming clichéd.  This doesn’t seem right, but it is so.

The irrational exuberance of the last decade has made the dystopic visions less real. Maybe now that we are well on the way to the second great depression, we will reacquire our taste for these grim warnings of a dark future.

Black Glass is highly recommended, but not for those that like their reading easy or their music and beer lite. Don’t pay attention to the occasional outdated tech and rehashed cyberpunk imagery. Instead, let yourself get swept along in the intense action, press hard on your eyeballs and watch for those sparkling flashes of the future on fast forward.

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