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Tea from an Empty Cup
Pat Cadigan
Tor Books, 254 pages

Art: Thomas Cole
Tea from an Empty Cup
Pat Cadigan
Pat Cadigan's other novels include Mindplayers, Synners and Fools; and three major short story collections, Patterns, Home By The Sea, and Dirty Work.

Pat Cadigan Website
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A review by Greg L. Johnson

Pat Cadigan came of age as a writer during the glory years of the cyberpunk movement in the mid to late 80s. Her second novel, Synners, published in 1991, remains one of the high points of cyberpunk writing. Yet while contemporaries like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling continued to write books that grew beyond the original boundaries set by the movement, Cadigan produced only one more novel, Fools, in 1992. Fools used a variety of typesetting techniques to portray the mind of a woman with several implanted personalities. The avante-garde stylings of the novel failed to make up for a less than gripping story, and left fans wondering when she would write another novel that lived up to the promise of Synners and her many excellent short stories. With the publication of Tea from an Empty Cup, that wait is over.

Tea from an Empty Cup tells two stories that slowly merge together. Yuki, a young Japanese woman, is searching for her missing boyfriend, Tom. She is afraid he has become one of Joy Flower's Boyz. Yuki meets Flower in a nightclub, and is immediately hired as the shadowy figure's personal assistant. Flower provides Yuki with the equipment she needs to look for Tom in the world-encompassing artificial reality that has grown up since the destruction of Japan.

Konstantin is a New York homicide detective called in to investigate the death of a young man who has the name but not the face of Iguchi Tomoyuki. The death occurred while the victim was in the artificial reality of post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty, a realm inhabited by gamers and others addicted to the AR experience. Konstantin soon learns that others have died while wired in, which is supposedly not possible. She decides to find out what's going on by entering the artificial environment herself.

The novel proceeds from these two character's viewpoints. Yuki meets characters that may or may not be aliases of her friend Ash, and her search leads to rumours of a new artificial reality inhabited by avatars of the gods of ancient Japan. Konstantin's investigation leads her on a quest for a mysterious person known only as Body Sativa, who may hold the answers to how someone can die for real in an artificial reality.

This is a complicated story, filled with allusions to myths, archetypes, and obscure bits of popular culture. (A cab driver, when observing the werewolves who stand guard in front of an exclusive nightclub, remarks that "their hair is perfect". The reference is, of course, to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London.") The reader is faced with the same problem as the two main characters, trying to solve the mysteries of Tomoguchi's disappearance and/or murder, gather clues to the other murders, and at the same time decipher the puzzle of an artificial reality which was created expressly to hide the identities of the game players who inhabit it.

The prose style of Tea from an Empty Cup is both dense and minimalistic. Dense in its kaleidoscopic descriptions of the Noo Yawk Sitty environment, and minimal in the number of clues that are given to explain exactly what is going on. The result is a story that demands the reader pay attention to every word, while wanting to rush ahead in order to discover the truth that lies behind the imagery.

Because of her reputation, many will be quick to label Tea from an Empty Cup as Pat Cadigan's latest cyberpunk novel. To do so, however, would be to unfairly tag the novel with a description that limits its scope. Neither Yuki nor Konstantin are in any sense punks, and the shifting realities and identity questions that characterize the story and its ending place this novel as much in Philip K. Dick's territory as William Gibson's. Tea from an Empty Cup is in essence a walk-through the artificial reality of Pat Cadigan's imagination, and as such, re-establishes her place as one of the premier writers of science fiction.

Copyright © 1998 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson continues to live in the actual reality of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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