At the current point in humanity’s technological evolution, the body is largely plastic. We have no cure for cancer or the common cold, but if anyone wants bigger breasts, hair implanted, bones sculpted, fat sucked out, or many other types of cosmetic surgery, the body can be re-molded. The brain, however, remains a mystery. We have drugs to counteract some conditions and very specific types of brain surgeries are possible that do not immediately induce death (lobotomy!), but as a whole, altering personality, memory, interests, and other such aspects of the mind is simply not possible. Pat Cadigan’s 1988 Fools imagines precisely this world of possibility—including all the little flaws and imperfections. Miles beyond turning a penis into a vagina, what a world it is.
To say Cadigan’s vision of the future is a twisted version of reality is only the beginning. Fools plays with actuality by shifting between reality and virtual reality, and further yet, realities within virtual reality. Consciousness smeared across personal memory and the memories of others, self-developed skills and those implemented from others, and mind-to-mind and mind-to-machine connections, the combination is a milieu of mentality that must be read to be believed. Not for the feint of heart, Cadigan slips the reader slowly into the waters of surreal consciousness, but once they’re in, it’s head to toe, the world taking on a dreamscape hue. (But do ignore the cover.)
“Tell her about a chop shop? Sure—then follow up with a description of how they'd dig out Sovay's self-contained memories with all the finesse of a chimpanzee digging grubs with a pointed stick, working fast because a hot mind wouldn't keep in a jury-rigged hold-box. Any excised memories that could unambiguously identify the mind would be flushed and whatever remained of his talent sold. There would still be a fair number of associations clinging to it but people who buy from suckers don't fuss about a few phantoms. Nor do they complain if the merchandise is half-mutilated from rushed pruning.”
Rendering cyber cowboys into base cyberpunk material, Fools is a fully immersive experience. Cadigan’s imagination brilliantly graded along subtle shifts and lines of consciousness and perception, the reader is helped along by the fact sections of text change in font type to hint at the ‘reality’ of the underlying situation as the characters and their sense of understanding is tested to the max. It just ain’t your grandpappy’s cyberpunk.
The concept of self twisted so far out of shape, in fact, it may make the reader uncomfortable—and indeed, seems one of Cadigan’s objectives. Who would want to live in such a headfuck? Life subjective enough, the mind technology adds so many layers, so many nuances, so many possibilities—both desirable and not—one would grow crazy within a few minutes discerning ‘truth’. As a fictional construct its pure amazement, but as potential reality, scary as hell. What if mindsucking were possible, a husk of a body left, and memories, talents, and hobbies fragmented at a futuristic chop shop to be divvied up and sold on the black market? The idea that someone could be walking around with your memories of high school not the worst of it, but that it’s so easily done, so simple to manipulate the most fundamental aspects of personal identity that hammers the biggest spike of concern. The hardcore neuroscientist, of course, harps that such technology is impossible. But it is not Fools aim to be predictive.
Science is pushing ahead, trying to understand the brain and its mechanisms. Inherent to this quest is the ability to have influence upon that knowledge if/when it comes (e.g. to mitigate an effect or alter a symptom). Much as medical research has paved the way for plastic surgery, so too would knowledge of the brain make available the possibility of manipulating the brain in non-critical fashion. Certainly today people have individual opinions about what can and cannot be done to their own bodies, but the modern liberal does not deny a person their freedom to change what they can with the options and finances they have available. And it would seem Cadigan argues the very same situation would exist if the brain were to become as malleable as the body: those with legal or illegal access to brain tech would take advantage in ways that puts personal identity into its most subjective state in the post-religion era.
When reading a novel, I have trouble not picturing its structure in visual terms. Fools is a + symbol speared by a pin. The novel opens with the story “Fool to Remember”. About a young woman with a memory addiction, she discovers that she has been feeding her habit by helping people commit virtual suicide, picking up the pieces of memory after. Discovering a detective’s persona lodged within her own, however, turns her in a new direction. “Fool to Believe” is about a detective who is assigned the task of tracking down the perpetrators who have mindsucked a young actor. Going undercover taking on new meaning in such a technologically replete setting, the detective dons layers of personality going into the case and emerges… well, you’ll have to read.
The pin is “Nobody’s Fool”. Perhaps a contentious choice, readers who need to have things explained to them will appreciate the manner in which the intersection of the previous two tales is presented in more transparent terms (emphasis on the wide range of meaning encompassed by this, i.e. you’ll still need a re-read). It’s also possible readers who followed the story may consider it to detract from the ephemerality of it all. I personally appreciate the fact Cadigan included this section. She does not go about revealing the tricks of her trade in stage magician form, rather creates an overview, binding the preceeding narratives into a cohesive whole.
In the end, Fools is a cyberpunk novel about the kaleidoscope of reality that comes about due to manipulative mind technology. Defining the term ‘multi-layered’, the novel requires re-reading. Cadigan starts the reader on an easy stroll through the consciousness that steadily moves into the deep reaches of true mental subjectivity. More complex with each twist of technological possibility—memory editing, talent theft, personality modifications, etc.—it requires the reader’s attention to keep pace with the savvy diction, insider jargon, and truly head-twisting changes in perception. Literally and figuratively cerebral, this is a core cyberpunk text that starts with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, moves through Neuromancer, and arrives in cyberpunk territory wholly of Cadigan’s own. Great novel.
(Paul McAuley has written a better, more concise review of Fools here on Gollancz’s SF Gateway website.)