Deus X by Norman Spinrad

Spinrad's Deus X cover

For those looking for the short version: I actually liked this novel, a fact which surprised me slightly. It’s not game-changing, but it is fun and hits on some interesting technosocial questions, as well as asking how the Catholic Church might respond (and struggle to formulate a response) to those technosocial questions. I was happy I read it.

This is particularly notable since I read it right after finishing Little Heroes (which I gave a pretty negative review posted about here). It’s a funny thing, going into a book that way: when, say, you disliked an earlier work by the author, but feel like giving that writer another try; or when reputation makes you leery.

That said, it’s noteworthy that on the merit of my decade-old memories of Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer, when I finished reading Little Heroes I immediately piled up the other Norman Spinrad books I have on hand and picked one to read next. After all, I figured, not every novel by a given author is going to succeed for a given reader. It’s only fair to give the guy a second chance.

I’m glad the book I then chose was Deus X, for a number of reasons…

This novel is much more, well, economical: there is a little bit of jumping between viewpoints that are basically saying basically the same sort of thing in different words — which seems to be Spinrad’s sense of how to build to a climax — but there are only two major viewpoints in the story: one of a priest who has been uploaded in a computer (in order to “prove” that uploaded “successor entities” don’t have souls and settle debate within the Church once and for all) and the other a rasta hacker whom the church hires to interface with and rescue this uploaded priest when he apparently is stolen from the Vatican’s hard drives.

Things aren’t as they appear, of course, but plot isn’t really where the book’s charm lies: the plot is, after all, pretty predictable. The charm of the book lies in the way the story is told. On one level, it stands up to the niftycoolism of cyberpunk — quite directly, actually, as in one passage near the middle of the text (on the first page of Chapter 9):

Way back in the late twentieth century, there was a pop cult called “Cyberpunk.” The “Cyber” of it was something they called “Cyberspace,” the fantasy that the Other Side of the Line would develop into a “virtual reality” you could actually enter via full-sensory interface. The “punk” of it was operatives like me would sleaze around inside it playing real-life video hames for a quick buck. Half right ain’t so bad.1

I think this kind of commentary makes this book, by default, a post-cyberpunk text, even though it was only published in 1992 — when a lot of writers were still trying to cash in on cyberpunk, and Neal Stephenson was only just beginning to launch his own critique-laden assault on the subgenre.

You’d think the book would turn me off completely, centered as it is on the theological question of whether AIs have souls… except that, of course, Spinrad’s exploration eventually makes it clear that the question itself is flawed; that, in fact, it is the wrong kind of question for the reality in which we live. Somehow, he manages to make the story engaging as it shifts between a spliff-smoking apparently-Caribbean hacker and a theologically conservative Catholic priest, post-upload, who takes the other main point of view with the chapter numbers given in Roman numerals for the priest’s POV and Indo-Arabic numerals for the hacker’s.

Now, if the phrase “spliff-smoking apparently-Caribbean hacker” got your hackles up, good. It was supposed to, because it’s a pretty accurate description of the main human protagonist of the story, and I was quite ready to feel offended by it. (I’d be curious to know what Caribbean SF fans thought of it, those who’ve gotten around to this book, though.) For me, both this hacker and the uploaded priest — as well as the various other characters that appear throughout — are, it must be admitted, prety much cardboard cutouts, but in a way that brings to mind the figures (they’re not quite characters) we encounter in Voltaire’s Candide, or the characters (they’re a little more filled in) featured in a number of James Morrow’s books. I suspect this kind of shorthand characterization is maybe an inextricable part of the satirical mode, and Spinrad is clearly as much as satirist as he is anything else.

(And has me thinking about that moment in SF — particularly, I gather, American SF — where this kind of satire was the done thing. I’m thinking of Robert Sheckley, Joanna Russ… who else was there doing this?)

Anyway, this is the reason why I couldn’t quite bring myself to be too offended: the Caribbean character also shifts into hackerese (and is certainly more powerful than all the Church in its dwindling sometime-in-the-21st century glory), and a power-brokering tightass Cardinal unexpectedly shares that spliff with him at some point. (Which is when, for me, the weed goes from being a kind of possibly-troublesome racial stereotype to a repudiation of same.) There are some bits at the beginning where Spinrad tries very, very hard to make sure that he’s effectively signaled the fact that the… protagonist… is… black!!!! The fact he tries so hard comes off as weird to me, but it’s much better than his handling of race in Little Heroes, which bothered me.

A comment Matt made over at Garbled Signals rang true in terms of something he noticed in another Spinrad book — the repeated slang/catchwords do get annoying. In this novel, it’s references to “the bits and bytes” and “the loas.” I noticed a similar pattern in Little Heroes. Funny thing is, annoying as I found it, it seemed to become in my mind a kind of Spinrad tic. Maybe this is what Justin Howe means by enjoyable books sometimes having “critique group problems”?

Maybe it also helps that Deus X is a quick read: the copy I have is 177 pages, and the type is relatively large at that — not large-print, but larger than most novels these days. But I don’t think that’s the only reason I liked it: there’s some sharp satire, some thoughtful puncturing of myths, some sacred cows ground up into irresistible hamburgers in these pages. It’s not a masterpiece, but not every book has to be, and this one was interesting enough to keep me going till the end… and to bounce me on to another Spinrad novel, while I’m on a kick.

Next up, then, is Spinrad’s controversial The Iron Dream, which, at least so far, is shaping up as quite the mockery… as I expected. More on that when I’ve finished reading it, though… at which point I may take a break from Spinrad, or I might dive into Agent of Chaos or Russian Spring. (I know many would recommend Bug Jack Barron, but I want to read the books I have on hand first.)

1. Incidentally, Spinrad’s post-cyberpunk take on that trope was that the net would never become full-sensory or immersive: without full-sensory, immersive would remain impossible.

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