Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #73 of 107: “Variation on a Man” by Pat Cadigan

“Variation on a Man” by Pat Cadigan first appeared in the January 1984 issue of Omni Magazine. The Big Book of Science Fiction seems to be the first time it’s been anthologized. And it doesn’t seem to be included in any of Cadigan’s three collections. Does that imply it wasn’t liked? I enjoyed it, though.

“Variation on a Man” is another take on cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction that was popular back in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time there was a lot of excitement over cyberpunk, but it seems to have faded away into the mainstream of science fiction. William Gibson’s cyberpunk started with his famous novel Neuromancer was noirish. Cadigan’s story does away with cybercrime and deals with mindplayers, people who make mind-to-mind contact for various creative reasons. Deadpan Allie (Alexandra Victoria Haas) is a pathosfinder hired to help Rand Gladney become a composer again after his mind was stolen and his personality is being rebuilt.

Most of the science fiction in this story is based on downloading/uploading of minds, which has become a very popular meme in our genre. It’s a concept I don’t believe in but is kind of fun for storytelling. However, there are many people working and hoping to someday make this fantasy real. In this story world, people have artificial eyes that are easily removable, giving access to the optic nerves that can be used for computer interfaces. Allie goes into Rand’s mind this way. Sort of ghoulish, but kind of neat too.

Cyberpunk often worked at creating a hip attitude, with lots of cool jargon and nicknames. But Deadpan Allie and her boss Nelson Nelson (Duran Duran?) sound like something Damon Runyon would have created back in the 1920s, although Deadpan might have been a tip of the hat to Tin Pan Alley since the story is about music. And deadpan also means with no emotion, and Allie isn’t supposed to convey any in her work while inside people’s minds. But for me, I found these names jarring and hurt the story somewhat.

“Variation on a Man” was a pageturner for me. Even though I didn’t like the idea or the cutesy names, I wanted to know what would happen. The idea of rebuilding a personality from scratch in a grown body is interesting. Plus, the idea that all the previous personality was erased made the mystery of wanting to become a composer again another story mystery.

The tale concluded well enough but fizzled out towards the end. I never bought the psycho-mumbo-jumbo as to why Rand Gladney would or could recreate a ghost of his stolen personality. Where did it come from? His doctors claimed the new personality was kept away from any knowledge of his old personality.

I might like to read some of Cadigan’s novels, Mindplayers, Synners, or Fools. I’m not sure old cyberpunk holds up, but I kind of miss the excitement it once produced. “Variation on a Man” reminds me I need to reread The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny which I read back in the 1960s. It’s another story about mucking around in someone else’s mind.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/11/22

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