Ordinarily cover copy is such a predictable element of a novel as to be rendered mundane. Engaging this, superb that, powerhouse here, magnum opus there, best yet, never before seen—a superlative salad. Not so with the Gollancz SF Collector’s edition of Mindplayers (1987). “Has a bite like a silk piranha,” is the one line by Bruce Sterling selected to characterize the novel. Effectively capturing Cadigan’s unique combination of stylistic rhythm and tone with an acute integration of mind technology and human inclination, it’s an accomplished debut novel that launched of the career of one of sf’s top writers.
Almost a plotless novel (more a developing scene), Mindplayers is one of those stories that so delicately picks loose the strings of its premise as to keep the pages steadily turning to see what it will become next. Dynamic in setting and possibility, Cadigan sustains the narrative through a variety of mind-bending technologies in emotional, mental, and physical contexts. The core concept never allowed too far out of sight, however, human interest remains the lightning rod grounding the novel in reality.
Caught in the opening pages for the illegal use of a madcap, the reader is introduced to Allie as she is put in the criminal justice program and given a choice: rehabilitate as a mindplayer or face partial mind erasure. Choosing the former, she’s enrolled in a mindplayer program, and soon finds herself exploring areas of virtual psyches, other people’s psyches, and her own psyche. The program interestingly giving her direction in life, she exits with a career, and is soon hired by one of the top mindplayer agencies in the US. Given the nickname Deadpan Allie for her straight-dealing with the agency’s clientele, she starts to make a name for herself. But she’s risking her own mind with each new customer, and eventually, things catch up.
Allie’s madcap dealer Wirerammer was caught alongside her, and his choice of punishment is the opposite: for partial mind erasure. Leading to an interesting chain of events for the man, Cadigan uses Wirerammer as a kind of mirror, or at least ping pong paddle that continually bounces back Allie’s own changes as a result of the arrest. From personality rental to memory lobotomy, physical deformation to seeming insanity, Wirerammer provides an interesting comparison and contrast to the Allie’s own struggles dealing with mind altering technology. Though starting the novel in the same place, each evolves to a place far different within a short period time. Existence in the western world as of 2016 may be the most subjective it has ever been, but it still can’t hold a candle to Allie and Wirerammer’s.
While Cadigan is far from a one-hit wonder, much of her fiction, particularly novels, is bound up in the potential effects of mind technology. Taking a variety of approaches, her later novel Fools is a hard look at the consequences of letting humans play with sentience and memory. Reality essentially becoming a choppy, shifting sea for the characters, Mindplayers takes a softer look at the mind made malleable. Allie perpetually keeping at least one foot on solid ground (unlike her counterparts in Fools), her examinations of others’ minds, while continually stretching the tenacity of her hold on reality, has a solid backdrop for the reader’s eyes to retain focus, making Mindplayers the more accessible story.
In the end, Mindplayers is a strong debut novel that injects a cyberpunk attitude into the mental/sentient aspects of existence. The world of the novel one wherein aspects of the mind are plastic and pliable, one person is forced to dive deep into her own mind and those of others, and escape with perspective intact. Filled with rich imagination and a wit not unlike Robert Sheckley’s, this is quality science fiction, indeed, with the bite of a silk piranha.