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Issue #133 - September 2006

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Programmable Fashion

By Cheryl Morgan

Whenever anyone complains that American science fiction is dying, one of the first names I tend to mention is Mark Budz. The sort of SF that Budz produces is more in the mold of the interesting story with the futuristic background, as produced by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, than the hard science of the likes of Bear, Benford and Brin, but that doesn’t mean to say that his science is in any way trivial. He also thinks quite hard about the social implications of the technologies he uses. His heroes tend to be fairly ordinary people caught up in nefarious schemes, rather than heroic and brilliant types. And finally, he makes good use of the Bay Area setting that he knows well from living there. Just like the Bay Area population, Budz heroes are by no means likely to be white.

The latest Budz novel, Idolon, does not appear to be related to his earlier works, Crache and Clade. Whereas those books took a biotech view of the future, with the electronic technologies of cyberpunk replaced by pheromones and other clever molecules, Idolon has an even more adventurous technology.

The majority of the e-skin out there was grainy, relatively low-res. Most philmheads could only afford secondhand, street cheap, or black-market celluloid. Thin membranes of programmable graphene — fabricated out of nanoscopic semiconductor threads — that were capable of displaying not only graphics but texture. As a result, Pelayo saw a lot of monochromatics cruising the streets — stripped down black-and-white pseudoselves that people hoped to colorize later.

Yes, that’s right, the programmable matter that Wil McCarthy tended to use building materials has been co-opted by Budz and turned into a fashion accessory. So you can have your house themed to reflect your favorite movie or historical period, and your clothes themed to reflect that setting. When you visit somewhere else it is polite to theme yourself to fit in with the local ambience. If you can afford good enough clothing to do so, of course.

Pelayo, the viewpoint character mentioned in the quote, is by no means a rugged hero. He works as a test subject for IBT, an e-skin manufacturer. His job is to wear new models of e-skin to check them out. It means that he always gets to dress in the latest styles, but if something he’s testing goes wrong, well, he’s getting paid to take risks.

But how does this clever stuff work, exactly? The clue is in the word "graphene".

"Artificial atoms," Pelayo said.

Lagrante nodded. "Now the term applies to fullerenes and nanotube threads that can be woven together into a bulk material. But originally it was a thin coating, used strictly for military apps. Everything from camouflage and stealth to field-mutable armor. It didn’t go civilian — architecture, fashion, entertainment — until later. Took years to figure out how to power the ‘skin using biolectrics. How to wire wetronics into graphene and integrate the nanoware.

I’ll leave it to the likes to McCarthy to tell me whether all that is actually feasible, but it sure sounds good.

We are, of course, basically in cyberpunk territory here. We have programmable stuff. We have a rich mega-corp peddling it. And we have streetwise punks who want to hack the stuff. Indeed, IBT are not above a little viral marketing — letting versions of new ideas into the black market to see how they play before launching something similar for sale.

And because this is California, we have to have some religious loonies. In this case, the Transcendental Vibrationists:

The man’s lips moved again, a barely audible hiss of burn-in-hell vitriol. "Salvation is near."

Pelayo flipped off the TV. Knee-jerk response. Most TV’s didn’t hemorrhage goodwill. They couldn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought of them. They knew, deep down in their sanctimonious hearts, that they were ascending to the Omega point while everyone else rotted in this pisshole of a life.

Of course Idolon wouldn’t be a proper cyberpunk novel without a crime of some sort, and Budz has at least two. Firstly there’s Nadice, an indentured worker at a local hotel who has come in from Africa and is being paid to smuggle something illegal inside her body. We encounter her because Pelayo’s sister, Marta, is part of an underground group that helps indentured workers run away from their owners. And finally there is the corpse. Detective Kasuo van Dijk of the SFPD is trying to identify the body of a young woman found dead in a cheap apartment. She was wearing an unregistered, experimental e-skin, and her DNA is not on record. It looks like it was the ‘skin that killed her.

Kasuo, of course, is a typical square-jawed police hero, but this being San Francisco he’s half Japanese, half Dutch.

And that, I think, should be enough for anyone. All that Budz needs now is to keep the plot moving at a rapid pace, and to get us to care about his viewpoint characters. These tasks he performs admirably. He’s not (yet) in Grimwood’s league for style, but he has time yet. Budz produces good, solid, entertaining and very American science fiction. He doesn’t seem dead to me.

Idolon - Mark Budz - Bantam - mass market paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee