As my legions of dedicated stalkers will be aware, I have previously written a review of Mather’s other work, The Complete Atopia Chronicles, for Scifi Methods. As I wrote back in October, Mather’s strengths lie in his technical background and ability to envisage horrifying abuses of computer technology, whereas his weaknesses lie in character development: in short, it was a fascinating world populated by less-fascinating people. So when Mather contacted me offering an advanced copy of his new novel CyberStorm, I was interested to see if it would follow the same pattern.
First up: though Mather’s describes the novel as a ‘sort-of prequel’ to his earlier series Atopia, it is not necessary reading for CyberStorm: in fact, its setting and theme are completely different, as is the tone. Whereas Atopia makes for frightening but colourful reading, CyberStorm is bleak. Ruthlessly bleak. Cormac McCarthy bleak. Whilst the former is straight-up sci-fi, this latest story strays into the territory of speculative fiction, drawing on technologies that currently exist and detailing what could happen if someone seriously fucked with them.
It’s the near future and all of our public services and functions rely on networked technology: from power generation to water supplies, from food distribution to epidemic alert systems. We follow a relatively-wealthy family living in Manhattan (where else?) as all of these services rapidly break down in the middle of a severe winter, leaving the island in a chaos of starvation, fire, and disease. The author goes to great pains to show what could happen in a worst-case scenario, and certainly succeeds at this task.
Much of this is familiar: after all, the anarchic, disordered breakdown of society is one of the most common tropes out there. However, once again Mather manages to provide his own take on a well-trodden theme, and though at times the dialogue between characters may fall into cliché (more on that in a moment), the plot does not. The claustrophobic breakdown of a starving city highlights how fragile our information networks are, and by extension, our entire society. The novel makes no attempts to pull its punches, and there are moments which are satisfyingly brutal and sickening.
In the midst of all the destruction, the novel goes some way to explore social issues: as is expected in a war setting, racism rears its ugly head numerous times, often from characters who are otherwise almost likeable. There are also vegan and gay couples living in the building which forms the novel’s primary location – offering more diversity than in Mather’s previous work – but it’s very hard to get away from the fact that the whiter, straighter, blander main characters are the centre of attention. Diversity is left to the periphery: the fate of every non-white, non-heterosexual character is left totally unknown.
Mather explores gender issues with a little more success. Though the novel does feature extremely capable and authoritative women from the outset – namely the vegan Pam and the elderly Russian Irena – the earlier sections of the novel see the two most prominent women function as domestic wives and little more, prone to bursting into tears at every given opportunity. However, without giving too much away, this outmoded dynamic is dismantled later on: suggesting that our genitally-defined roles are the product of an overly comfortable and pampered culture. When removed from such a system the women are proven at least as capable as their menfolk.
Once again a great plot is somewhat undermined by weaker characters. Though the narrator and his best friend Chuck have an interesting and sweet friendship (I’m a sucker for bromance), their ‘everyman’ qualities lead to you wanting to hear from the book’s more interesting population. As before the plot more than makes up for this, but I couldn’t help but wish that the gays or the vegans had been at the centre.
Despite its shortcomings, CyberStorm simulates – in horrifyingly plausible detail – the total breakdown of our society’s frail physical and psychic infrastructure. Caution: may drive you to stock up on canned food and sacks of rice.