Mixon, Laura J. 1998. Proxies. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 11 December 1998

Proxies (cover) The jacket blurbs call this "post-cyberpunk realism," "a complex tale of thoroughly adult emotions, political intrigue, and cutting-edge technology," "a science fiction novel that examines the grownup issues of children and parenting." I'm not sure I read the same book. Proxies is not a bad book, by any means, but it is none of those things.

I'm going to break one of my normal rules and give a plot summary here. Carli D'Auber is a recently divorced, brilliant communications scientist who has no intellectual property rights in her breakthrough work. That brilliance makes her the target for a very childish conspiracy to steal mankind's first starship. Aside: Patent law used to work the way it's presented, but it doesn't any more, and it's moving farther from that model.

While Carli is the central character, she is also one of the least interesting. The most interesting character is Daniel Sornsen, a "proxy pilot." Proxies are humanoid—and maybe more—robots that the pilots inhabit through a brain-software interface. Daniel is a relatively adult pilot. The antagonists (not villains) of this story, though, are several children with serious physical disabilities (hidden at the beginning of the book) being asked to do adult jobs as pilots of advanced proxies.

As is typical in a cyberpunkish novel, the technology questions drive the plot, from:

  • the hunter/killer proxy attempting to kill Carli, to
  • Daniel's attempts to protect her, to
  • token political interference, to
  • kidnapping and blackmail, to
  • casual destruction of property without real regard to human life endangered by the destruction, to
  • a most unsatisfying resolution.
The difference this time is that many of the people involved really are children, instead of adults who never grew up.

One silly technical error I can't resist pointing out: On pages 293-95, there is a whole series of numbers off by three orders of magnitude. Human reaction times are measured in hundreds of milliseconds, not hundreds of microseconds. You can find a good discussion of reaction time in any decent textbook on motor learning and performance, such as Richard Schmidt's Motor Learning and Performance. I have no idea where this crept in; knowing what I do about editing, I'd bet on the copyeditor. Most of the other errors I caught were somewhat more subtle, but I was left with a vague feeling of unease about the technical research.

In the end, the book has a feeling of "forcing to fit" about it that just won't go away. The best character is not central to either the problem itself or its resolution; the resolution requires a cheap, poorly-prepared change in personal philosophy; and the presentation of the central moral and ethical questions is just shallow. That said, the novel actually has some characters, it has a resolution, and it asks moral and ethical questions—all of which are significant advances over the typical cyberpunk novel.

Despite these criticisms, Proxies is a novel. It has more to it than just noirish atmosphere, angst, private fortunes, corporate piracy, kinky sex, mind-numbing drugs, and bad rock and roll. Neither are the characters caught up in some odd variant of pseudo-Japanese culture (only Sterling, Gibson, and Cadigan get this right).

And what about those jacket blurbs? Proxies is neither "post-cyberpunk" (because its main conceit is still renegades using direct brain-computer interfaces in the relatively near future) nor "realist" (because the characters don't act realistically). While the technology is cutting-edge, the emotions and political intrigue are childish. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a misrepresentation. Finally, any "examination of the grownup issues of children and parenting" is at best implied as a background fault in some of the characters; those issues simply are not central to the core of the novel.

Last, a word about style. One of the strongest aspects of Proxies is that it works its assaults upon the reader's senses through the events, not the language. One major weakness of much of the cyberpunk movement has been experimentation with language for the sake of experimentation, instead experimentation that advances the writing. This may be an attempt to find a prose version of impressionist and modernist tone poems, similar to Artur Schoenberg--although I don't think the cyberpunkers would appreciate that comparison! Ms. Mixon does not make this mistake. Even the typographical attempts to show simultaneous parallel thought patterns work acceptably.

Overall rating: 3 stars
This is an idea-driven novel. The main character (Carli) does not develop—she just makes decisions, and they're not always consistent. There are some silly errors in background presentation, but the presentation of ideas moves along so quickly that they're tough to notice. Proxies is definitely a step up in writing style, sophistication, and characterization from the average cyberpunk novel not written by Cadigan, Gibson, or Sterling--it doesn't rely on noirish atmosphere for everything.

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