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.
Up Next: TBD
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…
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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