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Book Review: Cybernetica by Michael J. Cavallaro

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Michael J. Cavallaro’s debut novel, Cybernetica, is an interesting fusion of the two disparate threads of science fiction literature: the dystopian, millennialist nightmare of looming peril and the utopian vision of the boundless possibilities of a better tomorrow.

Science fiction is essentially a form of speculative fiction that examines the effect of a real or imagined science or technological advance upon humanity; as Thomas Disch noted in his excellent historical exegesis of the genre, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, SF consequently allows authors quite a bit of latitude in establishing new cultures and societies, as well as exploring the potential and problems associated with the seemingly inevitable march of progress.

From Ursula K. LeGuin to Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard to Phillip K. Dick, there is a broad array of ideological and sociological discussion at play in most science fiction (whether conscious or not). In contrast to the many tales of robots run amok, Issac Asimov calmly interposed his three laws of robotics, arguing that fears of killer robots (or HAL, for that matter) were little more than the contemporary version of Frankenstein’s monster or the ancient tale of the Golem. Regardless, science fiction has always served as a vehicle for displaying our culture’s fears (and occasionally its loftier aspirations as well).

Indeed, the possibilities offered by technology are often tempered by the fear of misuse. The perception of “Big Brother” watching our every move need not be argued by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask: the rising tide of computers and the Internet likewise instills fear in otherwise “ordinary folks” as well. When people hear stories of government efforts to access search engine information, “data mine” phone calls, or otherwise curtail, censor, or monitor access to online information, they grow nervous.

Even non-governmental programs can lead to concern, be it of a satellite mapping program, spyware, or the knowledge that privacy is quickly evaporating in the face of an all-pervasive information network.

Cybernetica borrows somewhat from the classic “cyberpunk” work of William Gibson and adopts the uncertain mind control concerns of The Matrix in a story where the world is largely controlled by a brain-to-computer interface system called “sublimation.” This networked interface allows for a significant level of control over the general populace, and is the subject of intense conflict between an ever-shifting alliance of shadowy government operatives, corporate interests, and criminals.

The story is set a generation after the conclusion of the “Encryption Wars.” The rise of the sublimation interface means that the overwhelming majority of citizens exist in an interconnected environment in which their perceptions are subtly shaded and shaped by those who manipulate the system. There is a criminal subculture, however, that falls outside the system – a component of which suffer from a condition called blindsight, which somehow prevents them from connecting to the larger culture (according to Cavallaro, “blindsight” is essentially a neurological inability to receive some elements of subliminal information, which essentially means that a component of society is still able to “think for themselves”). From the ranks of these erstwhile criminals, a group of insurgents now seeks to destroy the sublimation system and restart society.

Cavallaro creates an intriguing world and populates it with a set of characters that manage to transcend the stock or stereotypical traits they might otherwise represent (the starlet, the technologically “enhanced” bodyguard, the renegade with a past, the shadowy villain, etc.). Moreover, he articulates one of the enduring, and fascinating dichotomies confronting the modern, networked world: whether these systems empower individuals in new and unique ways, or whether they are simply another vehicle for societal control by the “elites.” To a certain extent, Cavallaro’s book seems to reinforce the notion that technology itself may well be a neutral, and may be directed toward either ultimate end.

The question he seems most intrigued by is not one of use, but rather abuse. While the narrative is somewhat disjointed at times, the book succeeds in articulating an individualized perspective on what the emerging neural/computer paradigm might hold for the future of humanity.

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