Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction in simple terms: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breathe of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

Finishing this magnificent novel was a bittersweet affair. Sweet because it was a powerful joy to read; experiencing what a writer that possesses such a mastery of her craft can do with words, continually in awe at the bravery of this story, and how she approached it. Bitter because I’ve lived with her character Joan Ashby these past couple weeks, judged her a little unfairly at times, learned as she did, gotten to know her well as she grew and adapted, and now we are forced to part ways because the book is done. She’s such an interesting creation, and I want to keep her around a little longer. Most especially, I want to read the rest of her stories, and novels that she wrote during her life inside of this book. I’d be 100% okay if Wolas chose to write and publish them eventually.

Cherise WolasThis is Cherise Wolas’ debut as a novelist, but it is so well formed you would never think it her first published novel. It has none of the usual shortcomings that early efforts often do. I’m thinking she has always written. She is obviously very practiced, and a remarkably skilled storyteller to have put together something this comprehensive. If this book doesn’t get shortlisted for several big awards next year, I’d be shocked at the injustice. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins more than a few of them.

Her prose is beautiful and flowing, and her characters contain multitudes, especially Ashby as we get to see her create her own characters (some of them writers as well) and bring them to life with flowing prose. Wolas’ ability to write as herself, as her characters, and as her characters’ characters is just breathtaking. The subtle shifts in style as the novel dips into and back out of Ashby’s writing, were handled with grace, and they added some postmodern flair to the whole thing. It’s like a novel that contains a short story collection, and reminds me of reading both at the same time, breaking up the main story with little miniature ones that interject here and there, never taking away from the momentum. It just works.

My favorite part of this is seeing how Ashby learns about herself, and deals with events in her own life through her fiction; through the characters that take on some of the traits of those around her; never directly putting her own life, events, and acquaintances directly into her work, but borrowing bits here and there and reconfiguring them into new dramatic events and characters. It’s refreshing to see the creative process stripped bare and represented accurately like this. Everything is a remix of our influences, and our lives, blown apart and amalgamated. In the latter half of the book, we even start to get a small glimpse into one possible future direction for Ashby, through the fiction that she creates. It’s subtly done and I love it. We see her working things out, coming to terms with traumatic events, and coming out the other side, all part of her process of creation and renewal.

Read this novel. It’s out August 29th from Flatiron Books in the US, and Sept 7th via The Borough Press in the UK.