As I look back, in 2011, on cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk, I find in them a retro-futuristic flavor. Less pronounced, perhaps, than that of Victorian or Golden Age science fiction, because cyberpunk is nearer to us, and the credibility of its visions far less tested, and found wanting, by the passage of time. All the same, the "shiny, high-tech future where humans evolve into superbeings" has become the object of a backlash these last few years, evident in the turn, in recent science fiction, away from the kinds of futuristic settings cyberpunk did so much to define to steampunk and post-apocalyptic scenarios. In fact, just as steampunk and associated subgenres like dieselpunk and atompunk treat the speculative fiction of earlier eras with irony and nostalgia, I imagine some genre will emerge doing the same with the digital dreams of the 1980s and 1990s before very long. (I'd suggest cyberpunk as a name for it, if it weren't already taken.) In the meantime, though, we have the original material, rather more accessible to and in line with the tastes of today's readers than Victorian science fiction is to most steampunk fans.
Pat Cadigan is one of the original members of the "Mirrorshades," the small core of writers at the heart of cyberpunk in its heyday, when it was a movement rather than a subgenre, right along with Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, and Paul di Filippo. Cadigan's Dervish is Digital (2000), the last of her five original novels, continues the adventures of detective Dore Konstantin (which began in 1998's Tea From An Empty Cup). Konstantin is a veteran New York City homicide cop reluctantly holding the job of Chief Officer in charge of "TechoCrime, AR (Artificial Reality) division"—a rather grandiose title that means she polices the cyber-world that is her future's counterpart to our page-based Internet, something she does mostly singlehanded (as her two part-time assignees are usually performing other police duties).
Konstantin's troubles this time around begin when a "patchwork" cyborg named Darwin leads her into a casino in "lowdown Hong Kong" which he alleges is brainwashing the customers it lures in. Initially she takes little interest in Darwin's story, but her entry there gets her marked as someone to watch by the East/West precinct. Before she can fully deal with the consequences of that, Konstantin hears a complaint from fashion designer Susannah Ell, who claims that her ex-husband Hastings Dervish is stalking her—as a purely digital being. This being the stuff of urban legends, Konstantin has a hard time taking the claim seriously at first, especially as Dervish is apparently still living in the flesh—but in Key West, which has become the libertarian paradise of ultra-wealthy individuals like himself, off limits to all but those invited in, so that she cannot actually prove that Dervish is still actually an organic entity. As anyone familiar with thriller conventions might expect, it not only turns out that Konstantin cannot brush off these two problems, but that they are in fact significantly connected.
In short, the classic cyberpunk tropes—immersive virtual reality and mind uploads and downloads and all the epistemological and metaphysical problems they raise; technological penetration of the mind and body to and past the point of cyborgization; economic hyper-privatization in the manner described in editors Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk's sociological anthology Evil Paradises (2007)—are all here, wrapped up in the neo-noir package characteristic of much of this stream of writing, complete with a context of a pervasive corruption and a convoluted plot.
Where the telling is concerned, Cadigan's writing is full of the zany and surreal, but less trippy than the extravagant bizarreness of Rucker or Shirley. It is also less atmospheric or densely imagined than, for instance, the best of Gibson or Sterling, but comparatively straightforward, an ostentatious prose style never getting in the way of the story. As a result, it has what appeals in cyberpunk, while being more accessible than a great deal of the writing in that subgenre. However, that is not to say the novel is without its confusing bits, and others which are just frustratingly ambiguous (including what, in the end, becomes of the troublesome Dervish). However, this may be unavoidable given its immersion of Konstantin (and the reader) in a milieu where from the start it is clear that everything is a lie. One result of this is that Artificial Reality is a place where, contrary to the conventions of the detective story in which crimes happen but the cop sets things right, cases are "nearly impossible to solve," as the dust jacket puts it. Rather than a tale of order upheld, Dervish is Digital is a story in which the rubbing out of the line between the virtual and the real makes the maintenance of order in the old ways impossible. With the "bottled genie of remote Science boffins" loosed and the street finding its own uses for things (to paraphrase Sterling), the idea of law and order itself may even be passé. The twist here is that we see the irrelevance of Authority from Authority's perspective, rather than that of the punks ducking it. That same immersion in a world of suspect surfaces also makes for rather a flat setting, especially given how little sense there is here of a non-Artificial, Regular Reality where three-dimensional characters live. This is reinforced by Cadigan's sticking with Konstantin's viewpoint all the way through the book, and it must be admitted, Konstantin's own limited character development.
All of this makes Dervish problematic as a conventional mystery (something Cadigan has demonstrated an ability to write in, for instance, her novella "Nothing Personal"), and a reminder of the difficulty of making compelling literature out of the technological world we inhabit while being faithful to both the expectations and standards of the former, and the realities of the latter (as Cadigan, to her credit, genuinely tries to do). Still, Dervish is Digital engaged me as a brisk, gimmicky, idea-packed journey along one of the darker stretches of what we once imagined the Super Information Highway would become.
Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the novel Surviving the Spike. He has also recently published a collection of his writings on science fiction, After the New Wave. He can be found online at his blog, Raritania.