“You’ve got to look while it’s happening…Otherwise you miss seeing it the way it should be seen.”
With first wave cyberpunk in full swing in 1987, Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers represents somewhat of an anomaly. While cyberspace was the predominate playground for most cyberpunk at that time, there are no runners traversing digital lines into some corporations' information vaults lined with protective ICE. Instead, a kind of cyberspace exists only to facilitate mind-to-mind contact, lucid dreaming, and mind-altering substances.
Allie is a mind criminal who uses a number of banned substances and illegal devices before she's actually busted by the mind police. When a friend named Jerry steals a mindcap and convinces her to use it, her mind is left with lasting damage. He dumps her off to get help but they both get snatched, starting their very separate journeys.
“Does all of this really mean that much to you? It’s just stuff. Jerry. It’s just expensive stuff. You’re risking your - your self for a goddamn nouveau couch?”
Turns out instead of serving time, you can become a mindplayer—encompassing several disciplines that people use to alter their state of consciousness. Roughly, these services are kind of forms of therapy, though there are also neurosis peddlers too, so who knows. Rather than go to jail, Allie decides to become a mindplayer. After all, if you mess yourself up enough then they can just scrub your mind, at least, ostensibly you can. No big deal, right?
Mindplayers is at its absolute best when its exploring ideas around psychosis and how the people who meet and interact with one another, mold and shape each other; with or without their knowledge. This is taken to extremes when people meet mind-to-mind, navigating the contours of one another's consciousness. Opening the flood gates and exposing this contact for all sorts of allegories.
Thankfully, with subject matter like this there is no poverty tourism or fetishization, or even hyper-sexualism that is often present in this wave of cyberpunk books. Instead, the judiciary system decides Allie is a criminal and her best option as presented to her, is to assimilate into the system that labels her a threat, or else suffer extreme repercussions. While she may have been on a dangerous trajectory, as it's implied that she had been using a lot of other mind-altering illegal substances, but not mindcaps, to be in a continual altered state, it's interesting to me that in this story, the omnipresence is actually something systemic. There is no "evil" corporation. It's just the state. It analyzes her, determines she has value due to her brain chemistry, and immediately commodifies her.
“Anyone’s capable of developing delusions under the right conditions.”
The majority of the story is Allie undergoing this training and the obstacles she faces, which change her mind in unexpected ways. And the situations she's put in with her clients in order to work off this debt are inherently dangerous and each of them leaves an "after taste" on the mind. People's fetishes, violent desires, and neurosis become weaponized, physical forces in a medium like mind-to-mind contact. So in an effort to commodify her she is also dehumanized and risks losing her sense of self. With the alternative being jail. It’s a compelling and different. To connect mind-to-mind you use technology that attaches to the optic nerve (typically, though there are exceptions), which means peoples’ eyes are removed. They sometimes need to purchase new ones when the old ones wear out, and they can become status symbols when people buy cats eyes or ones associated with different gem stones. Though a bit on the nose, it leads to both of these kinds of people not being able to see things for what they truly are, whether oppressed by the system or apart of it.
The only downside to a narrative exploring this kind of subject matter is that it necessarily feels quite loose, and dreamy, which is not indicative of a genre generally known for frenetic pacing. I could see it being off putting to people reading the sub-genre frequently. While most of the subversions of masculine cyberpunk are welcome, this did make it hard to get invested in. I wanted to get to the next exploration of the waking or subconscious mind. While the story came to a satisfying conclusion, and the format for which it's presented in makes sense, the pacing was hindered by it.
“Do you know there are no longer any actors alive today who still have their own eyes?…It seems strange. Drawing on life and looking at it through artificial eyes.”
On another positive note, though, another welcome subversion indicative of Cadigan's work is how she writes her protagonists. I mentioned that there is no hyper-sexualization, but it's more so that sexuality doesn't play much of a role in the story at all. While Allie has relationships with others, the story rarely if ever focuses on the physicality of anything. It’s on point for the story being told and contributes to its uniqueness.
Additionally, masculine cyberpunk and feminine cyberpunk tend to be most different with how embodiment is handled. Masculine leans toward mind over body; feminine gives far more weight to a persons' body comprising their overall identity. Mindplayers falls somewhere in the middle. Later, in Synners, Cadigan has made up her mind about this. But here mind-to-mind contact is more of extrapolation between people's interactions in real life. In that way, embodiment matters. But it always feels like a medium, with not much weight really being attributed to it beyond that. Allie is simply not a physical person, she continually reiterates that she has always had an active mind and been in her head, rather than a busy social life. The minor details of her life, from her perspective, truly fall away in the story. For good and, sometimes, at the expense of a more thematically tight narrative. It’s compelling to see the starting of a throughline that would ultimately lead to Synners, which feels like it benefited greatly from this this against the grain tale.
“Not a single thing that’s passed between us has been real and yet you’ve been hunting me like the hound of heaven.”