Pat Cadigan: Eyes on the Skies

April 29th, 2018 | Category: Interviews

Widely regarded as one of the original cyberpunks, Pat Cadigan’s science-fiction roots run deep. Two of her first three novels won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. She and Robert Heinlein were friends. She’s edited sci-fi and fantasy magazines all the way back to the late 1970s. She’s been thinking about the future of humans and technology longer than most of us have been around.

In Ted Mooney’s novel Easy Travel to Other Planets (FSG, 1981), he writes,

The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate.

“Cadigan’s work makes the invisible visible,” Bruce Sterling writes with emphasis. “Certain aspects of contemporary reality emerge that you didn’t used to see…” Aptly enough, Sterling and Lewis Shiner both use blades and bleeding to describe her writing. She has a cutting style that could only come from a very sharp mind. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014, but I’ll let her tell you about that.

Though you’d be hard pressed to dig her out of her place in SF history, Cadigan has long since been looking up.

Roy Christopher: Given the techno-evangelism of the era in and form which it emerged, cyberpunk provided a cautionary corrective of sorts. Erika M. Anderson (who records under the name EMA) contends that we need cyberpunk’s skepticism now more than ever. Others claim we’re now living in the world that cyberpunk predicted and that it can no longer help us. Which is it?

Pat Cadigan: Damned if I know. I’m still skeptical but then, I’ve always been skeptical. I didn’t realize 2014 was the year cyberpunk broke—was there a memo or a newsletter? If it broke, how did it break?

Cyberpunk was identified as such only after it had been around for a while. The original writers, myself included, didn’t sit down and say, ‘Okay, what the world needs now is something called cyberpunk, and here it is.’ Cyberpunk was a reflection of the larger dissatisfaction and unrest in general, as well as a reaction against the old SF tropes.

I don’t disown cyberpunk, I don’t distance myself from it, and I’m still writing about things that interest and concern me, which is what I’ve always done.

RC: In response to the question, “What happened to cyberpunk?” you told Vice Magazine in 2012, “Nothing ‘happened,’ it’s just more evenly distributed now.” 

PC: I remember saying that to someone, but I don’t remember when or why. I’ve experienced some memory loss since I had chemotherapy—there are things I no longer remember although I do know I used to remember them (If that makes any sense).

RC: Well, Cory Doctorow only pointed out that the older cyberpunks talk more slowly than the newer ones.

PC: The reason for Cory Doctorow’s observation is ridiculously easy: Older people talk more slowly than younger people because a) we do everything more slowly, and b) we’ve learned via experience the disadvantage of not thinking twice before we speak. Talking faster doesn’t mean you’re thinking faster—it just means you’re liable to blurt out something you’ll have to apologize for afterwards. I’ve dodged a lot of landmines by talking slowly.

RC: If we’re living in a cyberpunk world, how might we update the genre to help us through it?

PC: The genre updates itself. I started writing Synners in 1988 and finished it in 1990; it was first published in 1991. I wouldn’t write that book now—I’m thirty years older and so is the world. While I often deal with the same general themes, the trappings and details are different.

I’ve always been an end-user—i.e., I’m not a scientist or a technologist. I don’t build machines or write code; I’m the person who always gets the faulty monitor or the computer with the motherboard that shorts out, just like I always got the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel at the supermarket. So these are the things I’ve written about—how to cope in a world full of faulty equipment and unintended consequences. I’m still writing about that.

RC: In addition, your stories often play with the relationship between memory and identity. This strikes me as germane given our 21st-century media-madness. What initially invited you into that conceptual space?

PC: You would ask me that, wouldn’t you? I was always interested in the human brain, for one thing. And for another, when I was growing up, people always seemed to be telling me who I was, or who I was supposed to be. Or they’d assume I was whoever/whatever and expect me to confirm their assumptions—and then get put out when I didn’t. Women of my generation weren’t supposed to have the same ambitions as men. Men achieved, and we were supposed to help them achieve. There were women who achieved and there always had been, but in general, they were seen as anomalies. As society saw it, men had ambitions and women had biological clocks.

And those clocks were strictly regulated. As late as 1978, I was unable as a single woman to get maternity insurance along with my regular health insurance through my employer—I had to be married to qualify. When I was growing up, it was standard practice for health insurance companies to refuse to cover the birth of a child out of wedlock, or if the woman had a baby before she had been married for nine months, unless her doctor confirmed in writing that the birth was premature.

This probably seems far afield of your original question. But in fact, society has always been trying to tell me who I am. Now I’m a senior citizen and society is still at it, worse than ever. I went to a cell phone store one day to get some technical help—the sales person thought I wanted to know how to change the ringtone. It was all I could do not to clobber him with the phone. When my iPad went wonky after an update, I took it to the Apple store after re-setting it numerous times didn’t work. The man who helped me insisted on walking me through the re-setting procedure step-by-step, teaching me as if I had never seen an iPad before.

RC: Given our internet-driven aggregating and sharing, is all of this cultural recycling really that new?

PC: It may seem new to some people but no. In the old days, grasshopper, this was how we made textbooks and schools.

RC: I’ve been exploring similar territory in the context of hip-hop (i.e., sampling, nostalgia, etc.), and I’m finding lots of parallels between cyberpunk and hip-hop.

PC: Well, I can’t help you there. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, but I’m only a listener. For the last three-plus years, I’ve had my hands full with surviving terminal cancer for as long as I can. So far, I’m over a year past my original estimated date of departure. Still not doing what they tell me to.

RC: Is there anything coming up you’d like to bring up here?

PC: Just keep watching the skies.

————–

Works Cited:

Cadigan, Pat, 1991, Synners. New York: Bantam Spectra.

Mooney, Ted, 1981, Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine, p. 74.

Sterling, Bruce, 1989, Introduction, In Pat Cadigan’s Patterns. New York: Tor Books, p. ix.

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