Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: 'Hackers' by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

4 / 5 Stars

‘Hackers’ (Ace, 239 pp., October 1996, cover by Sharmen Liao) was one of a large number of anthologies (‘Mermaids !’, ‘Demons !’, ‘Dogtales !’) edited by Dann and Dozois and released in the 1990s.

The entries in ‘Hackers’ all first saw print in various magazines (Omni, Wired, Playboy, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) during the interval 1982 – 1994.

The collection leads off with Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome’ from 1982, still – along with 'Johnny Mnemonic' – the touchstone cyberpunk tale. Tom Maddox contributes ‘Spirit of the Night’ (1987), about a team of hackers who get involved in what, at first glance, seems like corporate intrigue. 

‘Blood Sisters’ (1991) by Greg Egan, deals with siblings confronting a near-future wracked by the unregulated consequences of genetic engineering and widespread genetic disease; centered less on sf elements and more on emotional travails, it’s one of the less impressive stories in the collection.

Pat Cadigan’s ‘Rock On’ (1984) is a brief tale about a rock-and-roller seeking freedom from corporate and contractual obligations; it suffers from an overloaded prose style and a too-hard effort to be too-hip. Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Pardoners Tale’ (1987) is surprisingly good, coming from an 'Old Hand' sf author. ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ deals with a near-future Earth under alien rule, and a canny hacker who delicately takes advantage of the situation.

Alexander Jablokov’s ‘Living Will’ (1991) describes the efforts of an elderly man to achieve immortality via creating a personalized AI; there is a focus on the pathos attendant to aging. The premise doesn’t really mesh well with the hacker concept, and this is another of the anthology’s clunkers.

‘Dogfight’ (1985), by Swanwick and Gibson, is a classic early cyberpunk tale about an amoral street hustler who gets caught up in a high-stakes tournament involving a holographic video game about WWI fighter planes. It’s a great story, and a worthy entrant in this anthology.

‘Our Neural Chernobyl’ (1988), by Bruce Sterling, mixes terse, clipped exposition and dark humor in a winning format. It’s the utter antithesis of a New Wave sf story, and a ready example of the cyberpunk approach to plotting and prose.

Candas Jane Dorsey’s '(Learning About) Machine Sex’ (1988) is a mediocre entry. The plot centers on a burnt-out female hacker who must overcome male chauvinism and corporate greed on the way to self-acceptance. Its inclusion seems like a contrived effort to remind the sf readership that womyn have a place in the hacker culture, too. 

‘Conversations with Michael’ (1994), by Daniel Marcus, also features a female hacker as a protagonist , albeit one tormented by grief and seeking solace by the use of VR. This, too, is an underwhelming entry, as its focus on a humanistic element to hacking failed to move me.

Paul J. McAuley’s ‘Gene Wars’ (1991) is similar to Sterling’s ‘Our Neural Chernobyl’ in structure and tone. It’s a brilliant little tale about the genie of genetic engineering escaping the bottle. Neal Stephenson’s ‘Spew’ (1994) takes an ironic look at hackers in a near-future age of widespread Net Surveillance; its prose style is a little too overdone, to set it among the classic short stories of the cyberpunk genre.

The anthology closes with Greg Bear’s ‘Tangents’ (1986) which won both Hugo and Nebula Awards, and thus cemented Cyberpunk as the new genre of sf of the 1980s. Featuring a young, but naïve, genius for its hacker, and increasingly far-out developments triggered by explorations into VR, ‘Tangents’ remains a great cyberpunk story, and a fitting close to the anthology.

In sum, ‘Hackers’, along with Bruce Sterling’s ‘Mirrorshades’ anthology, represents one of the best collections of first-generation cyberpunk short fiction. All fans of the genre, and 80s sf, will want to have it on their bookshelf .

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