Friday, November 23, 2007

The Ones Nobody Knows: Dead Girls

Richard Calder's world is not a pleasant one, but it does possess an undeniable, if terrifying, beauty. There are sequences in his early novel Dead Girls that will never leave my mind's eye, I'm sure.

I'll say right up that the sequel to this astonishing novel, Dead Boys, unnerved me so much I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the final book in the series (Dead Things). Calder pulls fewer punches than anyone who's ever mapped this particular bit of terrain.

One of the least-spoken truths of "cyberpunk" science fiction is how little of it there actually is, and how little of THAT is actually any good. I knew that by the time I came across Calder's novel in a bookstore, I was jaded with the whole cyberpunk thing, and only two things drew me in -- the William Gibson endorsement ("Dark, edgy and inflicted with just the right degree of lyricism") and the striking cyber-Nagel portrait that formed the cover. Pouty lips and micro-processors: what young man could say no?

Well evidently plenty did, since this is one of The Ones Nobody Knows. Calder does seem to have some sort of following, based on his Wikipedia page, but I've met darn few people who've ever heard of him.

Upon the most recent re-read, I have to admit that Calder tries to pack way too much exposition into this slender book. There's entire chapters where what plot exists simply grinds to a halt while somebody or other recites yet another massive elegy of how times have changed in the twenty-first century. It says something about the power of Calder's vision that despite this, the book still grips me.

Unnerving. In Calder's world, massive improvements in technology have made androids indistinguishable from human beings. Except that they're not human. They're not "real". They are, if you want to look at it this way, dead.

Which means, of course, that you can do any damn thing you want to them. If I tell the novel is mostly set in Bangkok, you can probably fill in the blanks there, can't you? Well, actually, you may think you can, but I've got twenty bucks says Calder's mind runs in darker channels than yours.

This is a book of really really cool ideas in which almost nothing happens. And what does happen is largely incomprehensible. But cool. You've got Primavera, teenage assassin sexdroid vampire girl, and Ignatz, her lover, who are on the lam having broken out of the quarantine around London. See, these androids, there's a plague, and girls grow up to BECOME androids, and there's ethnic cleasning, and a Fairy Queen, and... Yeah. I don't really know how to get into it all.

And it gets really weird. I mean, you think it starts weird, I know, check the opening paragraph:

They smashed through the door; I vaulted the balcony, running. It was midnight in Nongkhai City and I was lost. The story so far? The Pikadon Twins - notorious henchgirls to Madame K -- had pursued me to the banks of the Mekong. But where was the Mekong? Too dark, too quiet -- and I used to bright, clamourous Bangkok -- this town had me drunk on shadows.


But the intensity of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary rises as the book proceeds. Calder tells his tale in a swirl of noir tough-guy English, scientific doublespeak, French fashion terminology, with Thai and Serbo-Croatian odds and ends thrown in here and there.

Some great lines, though:

The cheaper the femmes, I thought, the cheaper the fatales.


Come on. You gotta give it up for that one. Come on. And the half-page footnote on Primavera's "hemline neurosis" is worth the price of entry alone.

But the story folds in on itself, one universe opening into another, each one weirder than the one before, and Calder doesn't take many pains to make sure we've come along with him. As Primavera and Ignatz push ever-deeper into the twisted world they take for granted, we get more and more inured to the horrible things happening around them, so that the distinctions between real and artificial really begin to matter to us -- when a girl is being tortured, it carries weight if she was born human or grown in a vat. Or in fact if the universe in which she exists was created "naturally" or "artificially".

Which is ridiculous of, course, and that's a big part of what Calder is talking about. The distinctions we invent and then spend so much time and effort delineating, as though it mattered where somebody came from or what they look like. The "dead girls" of this terrible world accept their fate (indeed, they are engineered to do so) and it all comes down to aesthetics. How prettily they pout when threatened with torture and execution.

In the end, Dead Girls asks some very troubling questions about the nature of the sexes and what we want from each other, and what might happen if some of the controls on our behaviour started to slip. It walks us into a world that is a dark, disturbing shadow of the world we live in, rather than some future that might come to pass. And I think it challenges everyone who reads to consider how they feel about dead girls and the boys who love them.