Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of Frontera by Lewis Shiner

The transition from the Silver Age of science fiction to the New Age brought with it a change in perspective on mankind’s chances in space.  Where Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and others took a Betty Crocker life in the solar system and beyond as par for the course, Ballard, Malzberg, and other authors had a more jaded view of our prospects.  The 70s saw something of a return to space fervor, but cyberpunk in the 80s once again put a grittily realistic spin on humanity’s relationship to technology, socio-political evolution, and life in space.  A lot of cyberpunk’s focus related to street tech and life, cybernetic enhancements, and data hacking thanks to the success of William Gibson, it’s easy to forget that its aspirations were broader in aim.  Lewis Shiner’s 1984 Frontera, on top of being a debut novel, is a prime example of cyberpunk that does not fit the classic mold in aesthetic terms, yet adheres to its political and human tenets wonderfully.
With the collapse of world government in the face of mega-corporations, society has drastically changed form, and many public programs have fallen by the wayside.  One such program is the terraforming Mars mission—the colonists essentially left on their own by Earth, NASA now disbanded.  But one of the mega-corps, Pulsystems, has caught wind of a new technology that has evolved on Mars, and sends a ship with a few choice personnel, including the strange Kane, to learn more—in secret, if possible.  Arriving planetside, Kane begins spending time among the colonists, digging ever deeper into their strange fabric to learn if any new tech exists, even as his own mind, and what strange things implanted by Pulsystems, threatens to shoot off course.

As the title hints, Frontera is about a liminal zone.  Proverbially this would be between civilization and the wilds, but in the novel’s context, there are more specific terms.  One would certainly be between existent and breaking technology.  Another is locations possible to be inhabited by humanity; Mars can be altered for human life to survive, but it’s an unnatural existence.  And the last major frontier addressed is the personal.  Dislocated from home, the major characters on Mars all are dealing with existentialist angst.  Few, if any, live in a mental comfort zone.  Curtis, the colony leader, channels his uncertainty through rigid control in an attempt to mitigate his underlying fears.  Kane dreams wild dreams of Greek dramas by night and by day questions Pulsystems intents for him. (Given how strongly our solar system reflects contemporary civilization’s dependence on the Greeks, this is a nice parallel.)  Reese, the aging astronaut, can’t face up to certain realities, and takes comfort in drink.  And disaffected by the political scene, Marysia attempts to come to terms with her new life on Mars in balance with what she knew on Earth. 

While many readers would argue otherwise, Frontera is for certain a cyberpunk novel. It may not present the aesthetic patterns so familiar to the sub-genre, but its distrust of the future, the manner in which technology redirects humanity’s path in unexpected ways, and the individual shaped by their technological surrounds are core ideas.  There are no netrunners or neon-noir streets, virtual reality goggles or hovercrafts (but there are mirrorshades), instead Shiner populates his story with a gritty space colony, a questionable head implant, and a lot of personalities, acting, reacting, and making key decisions in a setting that would on one hand limit normal human behavior, and on the other offer hope of a major technological advance. 

In the end, Frontera is a strong debut that looks to find humanity within non-standard technological, domestic, and corporeal environments.  Eschewing the Gibsonian aesthetic to focus its cyberpunk lens on the human condition in the context of life and technology on Mars, a variety of liminal contexts explored.  From the personal to technological, Shiner perpetually keeps the focus on the characters, from their interaction and its indirect meaning to their headspace, as well as the manner in which the latter is twisted, to larger nad lesser degrees, by life in a bubble dome.  Frontera is a novel somewhat lost to the exigencies of time but well worth going back to take another look, particularly for the manner in which it pre-dates Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, as well as how it intelligently yet unequivocally broadens the spectrum of cyerpunk.


  1. I've remembered this novel favorably over the years. I can't recall much more than that and my perception that it was very definitely -- as you say -- in the then-newly happening cyberpunk mode. (I was one of the people who bought Gibson's NEUROMANCER when it came out as one of Terry Carr's Ace Specials in 1984.) I do recall thinking -- as you also say -- that Shiner nicely expanded the toolbox, approaches and flavors that Gibson and the rest were using.

    In retrospect, Shiner has never really gotten the break that he could have had; the timing of his books and of publishing fashions never quite worked out for him. SLAM, a more mainstream novel published in 1990, should in particular have done better for him than it did.

    As for the 'gritty space colony' part of FRONTERA, there might be people who imagine at this late date that the cyberpunks were only about cyberspace and 'the street finding its own uses for things'and so forth. But they were trying to re-invent SF as a whole and nothing's more pure quill SF than the space-based SF story. So there was quite a bit of space-based cyberpunk. Most notably, with Sterling's Mech-Shaper stories. Interestingly, in the beginning Gibson tried to write stories with space-based settings -- 'Hinterlands'in BURNING CHROME and the Rue Jules Verne/Tessier-Ashpool segments of NEUROMANCER, for instance -- then gave it up, commenting that he found it too hard. And you can see what he meant: you really have to set aside the cliches and think about what it's like to live in zero-gee, how your characters move, excrete, eat, how everything works, who's paying, etcetera. Of course, the prospective SF writer who wants to write a space-based story today has the benefit of all those videos that folks on the ISS have made, which have been put on the Internet.

    1. I've read only Frontera, Glimpses, and a handful of short stories from Shiner, but indeed it seems he is one of the writers for whom the general lack of commercial appeal has had a negative long term impact. In the least, I hope Shiner can hold his head up that he took the high road...