Two years after its publication, Mike Johnstone, professor of English at the University of Toronto, has written what’s beyond doubt the most incisive review/analysis of MIRRORED HEAVENS out there. For starters, he’s pretty much the first reviewer to point out the parallels between the downing of the Phoenix Space Elevator and that of the Two Towers, and goes deeper than anyone has yet gone on the political context behind the novel, marrying that up with a discussion of my decision to write the trilogy in present tense:

The more I think about the novel, however, the more I am impressed by how challenging Williams makes the novel on several levels, weaving together breakneck pacing, significant narrative decisions, a conspiracy-theory atmosphere, and a political edginess into a whole that generates a rather plausible (and disturbing) vision of our nearish future. What interests me most are the narrative decisions and political edginess: the former, because I think they raise intriguing questions about what literary SF can do with forms of narrative; the latter, because I am surprised that reviewers of the novel seem to have shied away from addressing the historical context to which I believe it responds. Moreover, these two elements, in fact, mutually reinforce each other, revealing a novel more complex than it might appear at first blush.

I’ll have more to say about Jonestone’s essay in further posts but you can read it in its entirety here.

8 Responses to “Deconstructing MIRRORED HEAVENS”

  1. Mike Johnstone Says:

    Thanks for highlighting my post on THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, David! Thanks for the kind words, too — very much appreciated.

    I’m looking forward to any discussion that might happen, here or in my post.

    This weekend, I’m picking up THE BURNING SKIES. Promise. I can’t wait to continue the series.

  2. David J. Williams Says:

    What I also found particularly interesting about your essay, Mike, was your analysis of how cyberpunk has expanded beyond the parameters of its origins — indeed, that to try and confine it to those parameters today is overly restrictive. I particularly appreciated your rejoinder to one of the reviews:

    .”…serves up a restrictive version of cyberpunk here and so I think misses how Mirrored Heavens quite consciously redirects cyberpunk to a different register. Many of the fundamental cyberpunk tropes are there: vast urban sprawls (Belem-Macapa, The Mountain); jacking into and out of cyberspace, called “the zone,” usually wirelessly in the novel; cyborgs; a hardboiled, noirish tone and mood; a concern for literary style, and so forth. Where The Mirrored Heavens redirects cyberpunk to a different register resides in what I’ll call its 21st-century sociopolitical awareness.”

  3. Mike Johnstone Says:

    Yes, I found that angle in Frantz’s review problematic because the idea of cyberpunk it advocates is outdated, and I’m not sure whether even some of the original cyberpunk writers would completely agree that the heart of cyberpunk’s politics and aesthetics is “fighting for the little guy.” I don’t know if one can even say this about NEUROMANCER, really.

    Still, cyberpunk, in its origins, was definitely about taking a subversive, countercultural stance: on the one hand, dealing with the economic and political world created by Thatcher and Reagan; on the other hand, dealing with the new technologies changing the world, such as Bruce Sterling calling the 1980s a time of mixings and remixings, of the merging and blurring of forms and genres and techniques (see the introduction to MIRRORSHADES). This is the point, in many respects, that I feel Frantz somewhat misses. Cyberpunk is much more politically flexible than he paints it to be, particularly in the ways it uses the (increasingly intimate) relationships between the human body and technology to explore a range of issues.

    A more nuanced reading of THE MIRRORED HEAVENS than Frantz offers is needed, I think, to pull out the implications of what is cyberpunk(ish) about the novel. I didn’t get to this idea in my post, but one question to ask of the novel is how much it might be in a kind of debate with original and, let’s say, conventional cyberpunk — how the zone is really a political space, for instance, or how the sorts of technological modifications to bodies are in many cases used for government purposes (i.e., Marlowe’s and Haskell’s uncertainties regarding their possible past together; how missions are downloaded into agents and revealed only step by step, as needed; how agents can so easily be tracked and taken care of, such as Linehan and his team). I see Haskell as a very intriguing character in this respect, for her act of resistance at the end might be the most subversive — or most potentially subversive — act of any character in the novel, particularly considering what she represents and is.

    What feels plausible and realistic about all of this in the novel is the governmental control and manipulation of all these cyberpunk elements. Considering the battles going on today between and within nations over containing and administering cyberpspace (Google v. China; some Middle East countries v. Blackberry; Iran), I’m not sure cyberspace will end up being a solely countercultural, “punk,” or corporatized thing in the future. I like that THE MIRRORED HEAVENS (and, I’m assuming, the series as a whole) shifts cyberpunk into such territory, for doing so holds onto cyberpunk’s basically dystopian vision while updating cyberpunk’s political concerns to the specific realities of the early 21st century.

  4. Tim S Says:

    Just jumping on in here to, basically, agree.

    I think I may have commented on an earlier post to the effect that Mirrored Heavens isn’t typical 1980s cyberpunk but, we don’t live in the 1980s any more. The world has moved on and I expect any form of media to move with it. The definition JP Franz uses for cyberpunk does capture the essence of the early novels. The problem is those novels are 20 years in the past and even then the definitions is somewhat restrictive. Books written to that formula would be just that formulaic! In my opinion there would be a sense of reading the same book over and over with only the names and locations changed.

    From my reading of Mirrored Heavens (and the rest of the series) the comment that the characters aren’t struggling against the government, they are the government doesn’t strike me as being exactly true. I believe that some of the the characters are struggling against the government in the most fundamental way possible. They are struggling to find and define their own identities in the face of organisaitonal control over their own memories.

  5. Mike Johnstone Says:

    @Tim S: “I believe that some of the characters are struggling against the government in the most fundamental way possible. They are struggling to find and define their own identities in the face of organisational control over their own memories.”

    Yes, I agree — especially for Marlowe, Haskell, and Spencer. Yet each character, including Carson, is part of the government in some way and not on the margins of society. Still, as you say, there is definitely that fight for individuality/individuation, exemplified by Haskell throughout, I think.

    Perhaps another way in which the novel redirects the concerns of traditional cyberpunk is the *context* within which characters fight to “find and define their own identities”? For instance, the “organisational control” of CIcom is decidedly that of the government and put to political ends, hence the layers of deferred and protected information, of functionaries and handlers, and so forth. Marlowe and Haskell in particular, though, begin unravelling some of those layers, which becomes the basis for their resistance. A kind of resistance from within, as opposed to from outside?

    I’m curious to see how these matters develop in the next two books!

  6. David Williams Says:

    Great points all round . To me, the essence of cyberpunk is that it’s all about alienation. And there’s no reason why servants of the government can’t be just as (if not more) alienated than those on the street. At any rate, that’s where I have to think cyberpunk is going, if it has a future— govts in the 21st century are going to get bigger and meaner and uglier, and how they interface with the zone/net is going to be crucial. After all, when Russia attacked Georgia, they shut down the Georgian net. When major powers start doing the same , look out…

    Though I think Marlowe has an authority-complex throughout. He just transfers his allegiance to a deeper, more primal authority (AR), whereas Claire is the one who really starts thinking for herself….

  7. Ben J Says:

    I returned to reading fiction – particularly Sf & F – in 2008 , after exclusively reading non-fiction from about 1992 – 2007.

    I read The Mirrored Heavens in 2009 and was quite taken how it was an intensely different read from everything else I had read. I found that I would read a 60 -80 page burst and have to pause to let it all sink in. What I really like about the use of present tense is there is always the potential for one of the main/lead characters to die at any point in the story. Because I’ve returned to reading fiction, I’m reading my way both forwards and backwards. My perception of past tense is in some ways it lacks tension because throughout the course of a series, the main protagonists, while facing many perilous situations, ain’t going to die.

    I always felt that 9/11 and earlier US involvement in the Middle East and Central America were an influence. One of the other subtexts I read into The Mirrored Heavens is that with the sheer relentless of 24/7 news reporting, one only receives partial data/information/truth and that one’s reactions can be quite unthinking because there is no time for contemplation and contextualisation to the many threads of history.

    Reading Mike Johnstone’s analysis made me think that out of the early wave of Cyberpunk, The Autumn Rain Trilogy is a kindred spirit to the “Eclipse”/”Song Called Youth” trilogy by John Shirley (Eclipse Corona came out in 1990 and I haven’t read any cyberpunk after that).

    I recently bought the Autumn Rain Trilogy (as an aside I’m a heavy library user – In Australia brand new paperbacks range from $19.95 for MMPB to $34.95 for Trade Paperbacks and the chain bookstores in my city have about 70% fantasy, 20% urban fantasy & 10% science fiction in the Fantasy & Science Fiction shelves – so I’ll cop to borrowing The Mirrored Heavens) through the wonders of the internet. I’ll have to dig out of my copies of the “Eclipse” trilogy to read after the Autumn Rain.



  8. Mike Johnstone Says:

    @ David — Alienation most definitely. This is one reason, I think, why NEUROMANCER is such a signature SF (and 20th-century) text: it captures the mood of alienation the individual can experience in an increasingly tech-heavy world where much of what happens in government and business is essentially invisible, virtual, occurring in a “non-space.” And today, the ‘net is certainly becoming a more and more politicised landscape, a strange sort of schizophrenic place of seemingly unbounded open and “free” speech yet also highly regulated and controlled and mysterious and … observed. (The current spats between certain countries and Blackberry is quite fascinating in this respect.) In THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, the alienation is quite literal at times, which I found plausible and disturbing: i.e., the agents often don’t know where they are or what exactly they should be doing until given the information as they go; the uncertainty of Jason’s and Claire’s memories (what really happened? what’s been made up?) is harrowing at times, and Claire most forcefully expresses that sense of the violation of and the disconnection with her very own Self.

    @ Ben J — First off, thanks for reading my post. :-) What you describe about the past tense is the idea I was getting at regarding how the past tense gives the reader a sort of comfort. There are perhaps, depending on the narrative, some things a reader need not worry about with the past tense, such as the narrator dying at some point during the action. David’s use of the present tense really does ratchet up the tension, not just in the narrative, but for the reader. Like you, I found myself getting through large chunks of the novel so quickly that I needed to pause once in a while to catch my breath.

    I just finished watching Season 5 of THE WIRE, a season in which the show focussed on the newspaper and the making of news and the related consequences for public policy and public sentiment. The whole economy of the news, so to speak, has changed profoundly in recent years, influenced most heavily by the Bush administration, I think. As you say, it’s all about a kind of relentless nowness that most of us have time to absorb just bits and pieces, meaning we can’t always get the “contextualisation” we need to make proper sense of things. What MIRRORED HEAVENS does so well in this regard is, in effect, to make partial context and bits and pieces of information a central aspect of its very narrative form.

    I’ve not read the Shirley series, but I’ll seek it out now. Thanks for the reference.