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Cat's Whirld cover

The best moment in Rodolfo Martínez' newly translated cyberpunk novel Cat's Whirld is one that I am sure has been done elsewhere: the rogue AI realizes that the virus the lone-wolf hacker (not the main character!) has unleashed onto the net is infinitely self-replicating, with no programmed obsolescence. Since the titular "whirld" is a space station, the virus threatens not just communication channels, but things like air filtration and gravitational maintenance. The hope is that the AI will choose to postpone its search for the hero in order to deal with the virus itself. That this AI (or CAI, in the book's parlance) represents itself by a disembodied grin and refers to itself as "Alice's nemesis"—it is named Cheshire—and is hunting the protagonist in service of aiding a religious extremist who is basically a Luddite helps diffuse some of the feeling of familiarity. Beyond that, though, there's something about that moment that really does hit. It's the structure, maybe, how Cat's Whirld is a potboiler intercut with a proleptic police interrogation (of the italicized frame narrative variety, which I hope you'll forgive the emulation of herein) and so barrels in a single direction through fits and starts, and the moment the AI realizes what's happening is when the reader realizes that it really has, somehow, managed to pick up some real momentum. Either that or, of course, it's just a pretty cool concept, whether or not you've seen it before.

The old joke goes: cut "dystopian" from your plot summary, and your cyberpunk novel suddenly becomes a libertarian wet dream. Old to me, at least; I've been making it for years now, albeit mostly to myself. It never was all that funny.

What marketing Sportula, Cat's Whirld's English publisher, has done relies heavily on the claim that it is the first Spanish cyberpunk novel. Originally published in 1995, the 2015 translation by Steve Redwood is certainly cyberpunk. The lone-wolf hacker vs. rogue AI is one giveaway, but the world—the "whirld"—conforms to that old joke. The titular "whirld" is not just any space station; it is one built by both of the major galactic powers, in a jurisdiction controlled by neither, and so supremely deregulated. This lack of regulation is immediately responsible for massive advancements in STEM fields due to lack of ethical oversight. Our hero, Memo, is as quotidian an example as the world will provide: orphaned young and made to work in a laboratory for his keep, an accident left half of his brain irreparably damaged. The technicians he cleaned up after took this as a godsend, we are told, and replaced that half of his brain with "memory filaments" wired directly into the other half. Memo is, in other words, a walking, talking, shady-information-gathering, read/writable hard drive. Once those scientists are done making him such, of course, they lose all interest in him and let him go to find his own way.

The joke, in some way, relies on a particular piece of knowledge (or two): for almost as long as he has been writing, William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and so de jure father of cyberpunk, has adamantly insisted that his work is not dystopian. His argument has been reasonably consistent over the years, amounting to the fact that combined and uneven development makes things significantly more complicated than sitting back and saying "ah, what a bad future." Which isn't to claim that Gibson writes uncritical libertarian libidinal fantasies. Or at least not exclusively.

Left alone, Memo finds his way to Chandler, a bar owner and small-time information gatherer, who he is working for at the start of the novel. What follows is a story of miscommunications and muddled motivations told through chase scenes and standoffs that ultimately result in the curtailing of a potential galactic threat to humanity. Cat's Whirld is of a type: the cozy story with an outsized scale. Not quite as emblematic of either side as Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, but in the same vein.

That second piece of knowledge is Jeanne Gomoll's "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ." In case you are not familiar with it, Gomoll's letter points out just how reliant early cyberpunk rhetoric was on the erasure of women's writing, euphemistically "the '70s," to position itself as a revolution within the genre. That rhetoric stems mostly from Bruce Sterling, f.k.a. "Chairman Bruce," chief propagandist of "The Movement." Gomoll points out just how widespread this erasure quickly becomes, moving from Sterling to fan conventions and zines; counterrevolution runs deep.

There are a million small things to like about Cat's Whirld, but it's hard to say if there is any one that truly stands out, or that makes it an uncontroversially good book. Those small things, like the self-replicating virus, are varied. Sometimes it is when you realize that Memo's backstory ties in interestingly with cyberpunk's obsession with bodies and memory; other times it is the little shot of joy at a goofy neologism or future-slang. It's how the villainous AI Cheshire is introduced as the only AI with any fondness toward Memo, and how he never lets that get in his way once he has decided Memo is standing between him and a delightful game; and how well paced and breezily written the novel itself is. The possibility that Cat's Whirld will teach you anything of incredible importance, or even be capable of providing a new gloss on the canon, is slim. This is not the responsibility of Cat's Whirld, of course, but it is sorely needed regardless.

It has been decades since cyberpunk—as a genre or an aesthetic—has meant only, or even primarily, The Movement. Anything that's neon and smoke and Orientalist gets the cultural seal of approval. The roots matter, though; and despite its many important flaws, cyberpunk's initial moment included an important material critique. That libidinal libertarianism is the unconscious of the economic shift that the 1980s cemented; neoliberalism. The neon, cyclopean digital architecture of cyberpunk, from Neuromancer to Cat's Whirld to Watch_Dogs, has persisted in part because these conditions have. If there is one political reason to read Martínez's novel, it is as a reminder of just how deep counterrevolutions run; through erasure and material critique, but also policy enacted locally by centers of power whose effects ripple globally. If nothing else, Martínez deserves a place on the shelf adjacent Lukyanenko, Dantec, and Tsukamoto.

There is some critique of—or, at least, playing with—the tropes of cyberpunk within Cat's Whirld, of course. The world is built around two empires that seem largely of the "state" variety rather than the "business," and the way that certain familiar tropes—hackers, noir detectives—are relatively ancillary characters is fun. The meat of it, though, is very much (to be somewhat uncharitable) a crime novel with an SF veneer, which is to say the stuff that cyberpunk is made of. And Cat's Whirld is very good at being just that, which is not at all a bad thing. Even paced, as it is, with the constant punctuation of post ex facto, infodumpy italicized chapters, Cat's Whirld reads like a fast-paced romp, and sometimes that pleasure is enough.

Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.

Bee lives on Island Demeter, where they write, organize an annual videogame pop up and compilation, and cook. Support them on Patreon for access to a monthly cooking blog that tries to seriously tackle reproductive labor with recipes.
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27 Nov 2023

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