Review: Last Tango in Cyberspace – Steven Kotler
by Steven Kotler
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: May 14, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
New York Times bestselling author Steven Kotler crafts a near-future thriller about the evolution of empathy.
Hard to say when the human species fractured exactly. Harder to say when this new talent arrived. But Lion Zorn is the first of his kind--an empathy tracker, an emotional soothsayer, with a felt sense for the future of the we. In simpler terms, he can spot cultural shifts and trends before they happen.
It's a useful skill for a certain kind of company.
Arctic Pharmaceuticals is that kind of company. But when a routine em-tracking job leads to the discovery of a gruesome murder, Lion finds himself neck-deep in a world of eco-assassins, soul hackers and consciousness terrorists. But what the man really needs is a nap.
A unique blend of cutting-edge technology and traditional cyberpunk, Last Tango in Cyberspace explores hot topics like psychology, neuroscience, technology, as well as ecological and animal rights issues. The world created in Last Tango is based very closely on our world about five years from now, and all technology in the book either exists in labs or is rumored to exist. With its electrifying sentences, subtle humor, and an intriguing main character, readers are sure to find something that resonates with them in this groundbreaking cyberpunk science fiction thriller.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »graphic violent content, so much drug use (mostly marijuana) « Hide Spoiler
While I went in expecting a cyberpunk, this is definitely more on the thriller end of the spectrum and almost anti-cyberpunk. It’s set in the near future, so while some things are strange, most are familiar. The author also notes that most of the things referenced in the book are things that are either possible now or likely to be possible in the near future. The best I can explain is that it’s a scifi thriller by way of Dune, animal rights activism, and a ridiculous amount of drugs.
“Plus, you find futures for other people, that’s the job?”
“But they’ve always been other people’s futures.”
“This time,” says Lorenzo, “the animals, the empathy. This time you found a future that includes you.”
Lion’s an interesting character. He’s an em-tracker, which means he has expanded empathy to understand not only others feelings and future actions but that of entire subcultures. He’s generally employed by companies to figure out if certain trends have a future – basically, his job is to say either yes or no. When he’s employed by Arctic, a somewhat secretive company led by your typical quirky-but-hip billionaire, he expects it to be just like any other job, but the introduction of a murdered big game hunter makes things personal, and Lion’s left wondering exactly how deep this goes.
“Rilke used empathy as a virus-scan for truth, his way to live the questions. Lion lives bigger questions. His empathy isn’t individual; it’s cultural. He can feel how cultures collide and blend, the Darwinian mash of memes, the winners and losers and what truths remain. He’s like a lie detector for potential futures. An emotional prediction engine for how the we fractures, the us becomes them, and then back together again. And a useful skill for a certain type of company.”
While cyberpunk usually deals with the virtual, this is more focused on reality – Lion’s somehow simultaneously obsessed with digging through surface layers to find what’s real and mind altering substances. I liked the exploration of empathy and how it relates to subcultures, and found the wordbuilding fascinating, if a bit confusing at times, since it seemed very close to the present but with bits tweaked. I’m a big fan of Dune, so I liked how themes from that were introduced into the story, but I wonder if a non-familiar reader would find that confusing. I was also intrigued by how Lion seems to view em-tracking as almost an off-shoot of autism. Lion gets overwhelmed by certain sensory stimuli and basically shuts down – at points, he refers to programming himself with habit loops.
“A couple of years after Wundt’s invention, philosopher Theodor Lipps wonders why art affects us so strongly. Comes to see the act of viewing art as an act of co-creation. An artist has a primal emotion that becomes an original insight that births a work of art. Viewers tap that source code via viewing, as if the feeling that led to the original insight gets broadcast, and people with the right kind of radio can detect the signal. Tune the frequency correctly and the experience is shared experience, transmitted through an object and across time.”
While I found the premise and ideas behind the story fascinating, the execution itself was more mixed for me. I’m not a fan of the choppy thriller writing style, chockfull of sentence fragments. There’s also a weird mix of excruciating detail (what size coffee he makes every morning) and complete memory lapses (drug induced or em-tracing induced, not even Lion knows which) where chunks of time will pass and then abruptly we’re somewhere else. The combination was a bit jarring and occasionally confusing for me. Additionally, all the female characters are sex symbols, there to be explained at with chunks of info dumping, or as deus ex machina when Lion gets in too far over his head. There’s a bit of a romance, and it was eyerollingly bad from my female point of view. To be fair, though, most of the characters aren’t particularly well fleshed out, though I got a kick out of Lorenzo, Lion’s best friend who communicates with him in Apocalypse Now quotes and plays drums in a fusion band, and Shiz, the rapper who loves Banksy and Dr. Seuss.
Overall, this read was not really my thing, but it was enjoyable in a weird way. I’ve added a few of Mr. Kotler’s nonfiction works to my TBR as I think they’d be fascinating. If you’re looking for a thriller that’s an exploration of empathy, societal change, and animal rights, and don’t mind a boatload of drug use, you’ll probably enjoy this book!