Future Media Short Story Review: Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” (1984)

Today I’ve reviewed the twelfth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future–and the first from the early 1980s. Pat Cadigan howls a ghastly punk scream into the vastness of the night.

Previously: Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (August 1953). You can read it online here.

Up Next: Barry N. Malzberg’s “The Idea” in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories (1971) (as K. M. O’Donnell).

3.75/5 (Good)

Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” first appeared in Light Years and Dark: Science Fiction and Fantasy of and for Our Time, ed. Michael Bishop (1984). You can read it online here.

Whenever I delve into the nihilistic streets of cyberpunk, I enter the mental soundscape and acute estrangement imbued by the seminal 80s goth/post punk band The Cure: “scarred, your back was turned / Curled like an embryo” (“Cold” from Pornography, 1982). Robert Smith’s incantation of “a shallow grave / A monument to the ruined age” almost personifies cyberpunk’s fleeting but terrible power and apocalyptic conceptions of dark streets and conglomerates stamping out the last individuals finding their way across the net.

Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” (1984) traverses an emotional landscape straight from The Cure. In a mere eight pages, Cadigan conjures a dystopic world-scape where music is no longer merely listened to but consumed by “tube babies all around the world” who “play it on their screens whenever they wanted” (32). Concerts with “spaceships” and “explosions” are no longer exiting. And if “the Stones came back tomorrow, you couldn’t even tap your toes” (33). The tube is where it’s at. Business conglomerates fight over human synthesizers (sinners) who “channel your group” and “bump up their tube-fed little souls, to rock and roll them the way they couldn’t do themselves” (33). Sinners are locked into oppressive contracts. Up-and-coming outfits hunt down sinners fleeing from contracts and hook them up against their will into their machines in a desperate effort to make it big.

Gina, a human synthesizer (sinner), wakes up caught in a forcefield on the street with rain falling on her face. She’d fled her contract with Man-O-War and knows he’s hot on her tail. A new “band” named Misbegotten corners her at breakfast with a proposition–join their outfit and make it big and they’ll buy out her contract. Gina, knowing Man-O-War will hunt her down, proclaims “I don’t have it anymore. It’s gone. All my rock ‘n’ roll sins have been forgiven” (30). She’s compelled against her will–Cardigan disturbingly utilizes the imagery of sexual assault–into Misbegotten’s machine. And she spins her magic. And while “their techies were gentle with me, taking the plugs from my head, my poor old throbbing brokenhearted sinning head, and covered up the sockets” (32), Misbegotten wants more. And Man-O-War has the final play. And Gina is caught in-between…

Final Thoughts

Like John Shirley’s early cyberpunk novel City Come A-Walkin’ (1980), Cadigan succeeds in generating intensity and mood. And like Shirley, technology remains in the background. It’s not exactly clear how music is now consumed or what form it takes. It is implied that the new medium conveys both the visceral feel and pyrotechnics of the most extreme shows with an emotional spectrum created by synthesizer themselves via a home terminal (which I assume you plug yourself into). The focus remains on the character of Gina caught in the greater morass of things.

Gina, a forty-year-old sinner and the best in the business, has but faint memories of the rock of yesteryear. While Keith Moon was dead before she was born she remembers “rocking in [her] mother’s arms while thousands screamed and clapped and danced in their seats” (31). And she’s been unable to escape ever since. Like an old icon still going on tour, she is trapped by the seductive and relentless pull of synthesizing but knows it is destroying her. She has no agency in this gritty empty world. She’s pulled in all directions and forced to rock on.

Recommended for fans of early cyberpunk.

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14 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” (1984)

  1. Many thanks for this review. I haven’t read much cyberpunk, but I was interested in your remark, “Whenever I delve into the nihilistic streets of cyberpunk…” Is it really that dark?

    • Mostly. Gibson’s dark Neuromancer (1984) definitely influenced later works. I suspect there are exceptions — I get the impression from the reviews I’ve read that Rudy Rucker has a bit of humor in his early cyberpunk works.

      But for the general vibe, think Bladerunner (1982) — the seminal early cyberpunk film.

  2. Is this related to her novel SYNNERS? And if so, I guess she changed the spelling between the story and the novel.

    I vaguely remember “Rock On” and liking it. I think her best early story is “Pretty Boy Crossover”, however, from 1986.

    • I don’t actually know — maybe she picked up some of the same ideas (the idea that technology is both seductive and destructive). I feel like I’ve read one of her novels before I started my site. Either Mindplayers (1987) or Synners (1991) but there’s a reason I started documenting more of my reads… I can’t remember the specifics.

  3. MTV was the thing that year….

    To echo Dinah Washington thirty-five years before—-

    Because, really, if you think about it, the vision here has become quite historically quaint now, in the same way that Heinlein’s ‘The Roads Must Roll’ or ‘Delilah and the Space-Rigger’ are. Here in the 21st century, the idea of rock bands as a center of cultural energy that matters (as it does in this story) is just as dead an idea as poets mattering — although Byron, Wordsworth, and their camp were once the Beatles of their day. And Cadigan’s hyped-up focus on VR? Well, give the reality of the Metaverse and 3rd Life we now have, that’s quaint too.

    So Cadigan’s a good writer since this story that could be just a period piece and was written about the time you, JB, were born or before — right? — can still suck you in. She is a good writer, actually. I read this story and also, like Rich, Cadigan’s ‘Pretty Boy Crossover’ in ASIMOVS. I liked them, though as Rich suggests ‘Pretty Boy Crossover’ is the same kind of milieu but a little deeper and more tragic.

    An even better Cadigan story is ‘Angel,’ which is from this period and not a VR story.

    • Hello Mark,

      I was born in 1987.

      Good point about MTV! I did not know exactly when it was created. The first music video — The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”–was broadcast in 1981. Which is very humorous considering the topic of Cadigan’s story… nice connection! I should have spotted it.

      As I’ve said before, I’m interested in the story because it is of its time and tells us about the fears of the moment and it in no way bothers me that it might be “historically quaint” or that some elements of the technology might have coincidentally come to pass. This is a series on media representations in science fiction — hence, it fits! My entire reading project and enjoyment of science fiction is historical in nature. I do not like science fiction simply because it is science fiction. I like science fiction because it was written in decades I find historically compelling. That’s why I ignore almost all newer SF or new TV adaptations of classic SF etc.

      The story is at its core a character piece. And while the technology it there, it’s secondary to the struggles and feelings of the main character. And regardless of the trappings of the era, the figure of Gina conveys some real emotional power — a burnt out musician caught in a trap partially of her own making and partially by the uncontrollable mega corporations.

      And, as you say, she is a good writer!

  4. JB: It in no way bothers me that it might be “historically quaint”

    Oh, I understand that. Sometimes one is struck by an old SF story precisely because within the ‘quaintness’ of their cultural context, a specific writer of an earlier era was so penetrating.

    Most obviously, for instance, H.G. Wells’s visionary imagination in most of his SF. Adam Roberts recently did a literary biography of all Wells’s books and I realized that almost all the basic SF power chords — as cyberpunks like Cadigan, Gibson, and Sterling used to call the big SF tropes — Wells had hit on first. Not just the obvious ones we know from Wells’s major SF, but also the trope of suspended animation and compounding finance in THE SLEEPER AWAKES; or the trope that we humans are really proxy alien colonists created by long-distance genetic manipulation of Earth’s apes by Martians, which is the big idea in Nigel Neale’s QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (BBC serial in the 1950s; remade as a great Hammer film called FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH in the 1960s), but which Wells had come up with first in STAR-BEGOTTEN in 1939. And many more.

    JB: or that some elements of the technology might have coincidentally come to pass.

    There, conversely, my point was that the vision of VR in ‘Rock On’– Cadigan conspicuously fudges what’s going on in a pseudo-poetic haze of words, IIRC — is kind of sad and funny given the thuddingly dull, clunky reality of actually-existing VR our corporate overlords have delivered in 2022.

    JB: The story is at its core a character piece … (and) conveys some real emotional power


    • Regarding the issue of “historical quaintness” in SF, I don’t know what year (if any) this story is set. (I haven’t yet had a chance to read the story itself.) However, “historical quaintness” or datedness doesn’t bother me at all in SF. There’s something I find fascinating about the past’s visions of the future. I enjoy reading SF stories written in the thirties, for instance, envisioning a future which has become an alternate past for us.

      • The story is deliberately vague about such details. Considering Keith Moon died in 1978 (the only historical event I picked up on)… and the narrator mentions she wasn’t born yet, perhaps she was then born in the next decade. And as she’s 40 years old in the story I assume it then takes place around now!

    • I think the “fudging” of the precise technology is a good decision — and yeah, the focus is instead on her character and the lovely “pseudo-poetic haze of words.”

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