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Virtual Surreality: Everyone in Silico by Jim Munroe

Reviewed by James Palmer

(originally published in Strange Horizons April 12, 2004)

Canadian author Jim Munroe is known for writing weird books. His first novel, Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, is about a young man who can turn into a fly, who meets a waitress who can make things disappear. His second novel, Angry Young Spaceman, is about a young man who travels to a planet where the locals live underwater, to teach English. While these are good reads, I think Munroe has finally outdone himself with his latest foray into SF, Everyone in Silico.

His first two novels were told in the first person, while Silico is told in the third. I think this makes it a much better narrative. Munroe deals with multiple points of view this time, adding a depth that his first two books, while great, lack. He is also adept at stringing the various plots together, and making you want to read on to see what happens in the next transition. As always, his characters are quirky, but they seem more realistic in this one.

There's Nicky, who grows genetically engineered pets in her EasyBake oven. There's Eileen, an elderly woman who used to be part of a black ops government assault team, and Doug, a coolhunter, someone who researches trends to determine the next big thing, trying to make ends meet. Then there are the mysterious Infiltrators, people who start a subculture for the coolhunters to "predict," then reveal that they created it. They are all trying to get by in a world transformed by Self, a technology that allows people to upload themselves into a computer-generated environment called Frisco, becoming completely digital and immortal. Everyone is buying into it -- that is, everyone who can afford it -- and leaving everyone else behind. There are hardly any jobs left, but at least the rents have dropped.

Munroe does a great job of world building here. The book contains a lot of cool cyberpunk elements, but none of the technophilia that taints most cyberpunk. For example, everyone has these cool watches, called Ristwatches, that do everything from waking the characters in the morning, to beaming them entertainment, to transferring funds. Then of course, there is the Self technology, which makes everyone who uses it digital, forever young, and immortal. I also like the idea of the coolhunters, which he touched upon briefly in Angry Young Spaceman. Munroe attacks crass consumerism and commercialism in his books, and this idea I could just see happening, especially in light of manufactured boy bands like N'Sync. Add in the regular people delivering product pitches (in restaurants, elevators, etc), and private corporations abolishing all governments, and you have one weird and scary future.

One of the coolest bits of hardware though, is Eileen's blacksuit, which she wore when attacking rival corporations in her black ops days. She is using it to track down her grandson, who has vanished somewhere in Frisco. With the suit, Eileen can accelerate to great speed, connect to Munroe's future version of the Internet, and do all of the other things you'd expect from such a garment. There is one drawback, however: it is powered by Eileen's body, making her age prematurely and basically feeding on her life force. Eileen hopes to use it to track down her grandson's physical body. The location of the bodies of the Self inductees is a huge corporate secret, a mystery that is key to the denouement of the book, which is basically an indictment of the exploitative nature of capitalism.

Munroe attacks the ways in which capitalism is like a pyramid scheme, and the ways in which it exploits workers. He is also commenting on the constant intrusion of ads in our lives. Like the Internet, Frisco is full of ads, but those who order the Platinum Package have the option of turning their ads off. Sounds like today's Web hosting and Internet packages to me.

What I like best about Jim Munroe is that he knows how to use the trappings and tropes of science fiction to tell great stories, without trying to belong to any of the cliques. Even his style is different: conversational, informal, and not like contemporary SF at all. It's as if he has read enough SF to know how it works, but his writing style is informed by other bodies of literature. He takes just what he needs from the genre -- setting, equipment, ideas -- and leaves the rest behind, melding these things into something entirely his own, something that isn't traditional SF, but different, better, and able to reach those who think that SF is more than just rockets and ray guns. If you're looking for something a little bizarre and quirky, or if you're seeking to bring a person who doesn't read SF into the fold, look no further.

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