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My most bewildering day in years was the one on which I picked up a copy of Time (9 February 1993) and saw that the cover story was about, I kid you not, cyberpunk. Cyberpunk? VIRTUAL SEX, SMART DRUGS AND SYNTHETIC ROCK' N' ROLL, big yellow letters shouted at me. A FUTURISTIC SUBCULTURE ERUPTS FROM THE ELECTRONIC UNDERGROUND.

There goes the neighborhood.

I mean, once Time calls something new (more than eight years, I should point out, after that thing's initial appearance with William Gibson's white-hot Neuromancer), well, that's pretty much the ball game. Mainstream culture has (once again) appropriated the fringe, neutralized it, commercialized it, and made it its own. I should have known as much when watching what La-la Land did with virtual reality in Lawn Mower Man the night it opened.

Except that cyberpunk has anticipated such stuff, has got the pomo jump on the mainstream. Take Marc Laidlaw's new novel, Kalifornia. Set in the middle of the twenty-first century, on the eve of California's bicentennial, it explores the advent of livewires - media superstars who are neurologically wired so their audience (also wired) can feel everything they feel, see everything they see, live lives more interesting than the dreary McDesktop ones they are living now.

One such livewire is Poppy Figueroa. A member of the world's most popular broadcasting family, with her very own spin-off series, Poppy gives birth on the air to the first hardwired machine-girl, Calafia, or Kali for short, who almost immediately is kidnapped. Poppy's younger brother, Sandy, has given up the livewire profession years ago in dismay at the emotional cost of being a teen idol, only to be sucked into the plot to rescue fast-maturing Kali who, it turns out, is endowed with "the powers of a goddess and the heart of a network executive."

What follows is a techno-savior story (with many narrative nods of appreciation toward Gibson, particularly the Gibson of Mona Lisa Overdrive) that involves a high-speed chase through a grungy universe of habimalls and electronic drugs, animal-,human hybridization and soothing anti-psychotic aerosols, President McBeth and a radical feminist sect of goddess-worshipers who live in the Holy City, the dead zone in California's heart.

Like Mark Leyner's avant-pop Et Tu, Babe, Laidlaw's latest satirizes the commercialization of art while simultaneously celebrating its most appealing and mind-numbingly cartoonish tropes. Pynchon meets The Partridge Family in this book, and the consequence is a funny, frenzied, fresh investigation, frequently replete with strobe-light prose and great one-liners ("I am not here to judge, but to surf"), of our pomo lives as bad scripts written by unknowable others. Below the breakneck pace and crazed reality distortions lurk the Big Questions: What is the relationship between mind and body, one person and another? What does it mean to be human? And where, oh where, does the media end and the real world begin - or does it? [Lance Olsen]
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Author:Olsen, Lance
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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