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Cyberpunk Culture as Language: Last Tango in Cyberspace

by Fraser Simons
Cyberpunk Culture as Language: Last Tango in Cyberspace


Steven Kotler’s Last Tango in Cyberspace

Steven Kotler’s Last Tango in Cyberspace makes culture a character to be explored in equal measure as the main character. Lion, an empathy-tracker, or em-tracker for short, uses his unique talent to consume curated content provided by clients and extrapolate a future. Not on an individual level, mind you, rather as a glimpse at cultural significance regarding the content in the future. It’s an amalgamation of genetic drifts which hardwires an em-tracker’s pattern recognition–hacking their intuition to do a sort of cultural prognostication.

Last Tango in Cyberspace - Steven Kotler
Last Tango in Cyberspace - Steven Kotler

Em-trackers’ methods vary by person, and there are very few trackers operating in the same capacity as Lion is, doing this very niche work for a living. A very good living at that.

Lion, in particular, is rigged to make these deductions from words and logos, though it’s gestured that each tracker would be completely different. He processes the content he’s given, reacts and tells the client if he sees a future or not. It’s usually a binary answer–a yes or a no.

Superficially, this book is about Lion being contracted by a major corporate entity to take a look at a crime scene and apply his talents. But this is a very unorthodox application of his gifts, and one which ends up taking him down a rabbit hole. Ostensibly, it’s a murder mystery wrapped up in noir trappings, something people might expect from cyberpunk. This is where the clear iterations from the subculture come into play, however.

Within the tropes of a pleasurable whodunit, there’s much more to be consumed.

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Common Tech-Noir Tropes

Tech-noir is specific trope that follows noir elements in cyberpunk, such as the investigator in over their head. A unique vernacular used; there is typically a colloquial dialect that is foreign to the reader and makes them feel a fish out of water. The reader interprets what these cultural elements are in the future with the remix of certain words or the use of completely fictional words, from time to time. Interestingly, the dialect used in this novel is pop culture itself. Not in the very limited sense of Ready Player One, where games, gamers, and gaming is the language. Rather, this pop culture regards landmark moments in cinema and literature that are reasonably absorbed into the general intellect of society–the most common being the novel Dune.

Lion carries this dialect with him all the time. It is the cornerstone for the explanation of Lion’s gifts and poly-tribalism, a central component to the way Lion looks at culture in the story. People are intersectional beings with complex identities in this world. Tracing the identity back to its origin is possible with the help of technology. Thus, appealing to particular facets of identity can be a predictor for whether or not something is to be successful and thrive, or whether it could be consumed by another identity that dominates it.

I think this approach both hinders and helps Last Tango in Cyberspace. For one, it’s an interesting use of the trope which proved satisfying for me, personally. I had never read Dune, but it is explained as needed. I never felt lost. However, I could envision some people who have read the book disagreeing with the cultural impacts asserted in the text. This would be problematic, as the book draws heavily from Dune on a personal level for Lion, and also uses it as a fundamental shorthand for what is happening in the plot and the theme of this story.

In Last Tango in Cyberspace, the frenetic pacing that accompanies cyberpunk literature is replaced with a sort of artificial acceleration due to the structure of the book. Lots of very short chapters, in other words. This allows for expounding on the cultural aspects that are conveyed in the text. You notice what Lion notices. These details become foundational to the extrapolations he draws on later. What this means, though, is that the pacing is somewhat sacrificed in order to get the reader to do the same types of pattern recognition Lion does during the book. It’s clever, but a slow burn.

For me, the slower pace made it feel reminiscent of Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon. Envoys in that novel “soak up” culture in order to fit in and navigate foreign cultures. Lion’s talent feels like it takes that idea and explores it more thoroughly, engaging with it more; this method allows you to soak up the information as well. If it were frenetic, some of the details would be lost, I feel.

Cyberpunk Culture as Language: Last Tango in Cyberspace
Photo Credit: Zion by Niek Schlosser

Full of Empathy — An Anti-Anti-Hero?

A concept continually being reiterated in the novel is “living the questions.” This is something that also subverts first wave cyberpunk, the characters of which are generally on the spectrum somewhere, unlikeable and/or anti-social, and living on the fringes of society in a subculture of some kind.

Lion, however, is an embodiment of empathy. He exists in stark contrast to those protagonists, relating to almost everyone and thus able to assume their point of view–to the extent, in fact, that he resolves to not use his talents on other people.

Last Tango in Cyberspace feels like writing a love letter to cyberpunk while updating it. In Neuromancer, for example, Gibson’s Rastafarians were a source of major critique. They are also featured in this novel, but Steven Kotler traces the cultural aspects and importance of Rastafarian influences on western mainstream culture. It feels as though Kotler makes a point to correct the caricature found in the original source material. Whether or not it succeeds I leave up to someone who’s more educated on that topic, but the intent is clear.

This leads me to the only thing I didn’t like about the novel and a personal pet peeve of mine: authors using foreign language phonetically in dialogue. It’s usually done as a form of cultural appreciation and authenticity, I’m sure, but it results in the author needing to clarify what is being said regardless, and it just feels uncomfortable. It’s also pretty much always from a western perspective on a minority culture, and is usually the default assumption of what the language sounds like. Lion is able to converse in this style for plausible reasons–often not the case when this is encountered–but it’s always left me feeling squeamish. Just tell me they have an accent, placing them in whatever area if that is relevant.

As Lion navigates the mystery and ping-pongs about the globe, consuming the clues surrounding the suspicious death, the reader, too, is engaging in this meta-language, both in terms of how it subverts or remixes cyberpunk tropes as well as the cultural context and information Lion imparts as his process. All of this is given weight, hooking the plot into these details down the line as it comes together.

Most interestingly of all perhaps, the author goes out of his way to state that all of the technology in the book exists in the world today, or is in a lab somewhere being worked on, at the very least. This makes the future we are presented with prescient in the same way Neuromancer did with the advent of the Internet and the rise of technology in the 90s. But where technophobia is firmly rooted in first wave cyberpunk, Last Tango in Cyberspace is making a virtue of humanities peculiarities, some of which we barely grasp. While the Internet is not something we may understand, so too are we learning the same of our own minds. Empathy, after all, is not something we gained from modernity.

And empathy seems to be the thing we desperately need right now, rather than the consensual hallucination that allows us to connect to others while, at the same time, enabling us to dehumanize each other.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing the unedited version ahead of time in exchange for an honest review. You can find Last Tango in Cyberspace for purchase here.

Favorite Quotes

“Last tango in cyberspace…the end of something radically new. Copy that.”

“Pitch black again. Like someone extinguished an angel.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“Rilke knew what was up. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, one distant day, live right into the answer. What’s truer than that?” 

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“The car sees emotions. Signals have been pre-programmed, down to the basement level, below Ekman’s micro-expressions, getting to the core biophysical: heart rate variability, blood oxygen levels. And all from pointing a laser at a tiny vein in the human forehead.

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“The car sees emotions, yet feels nothing. So morality too has to be pre-scripted into the code. Aim for garbage cans and not pedestrians; aim for solitary pedestrians rather than large groups. Empathy programmer, he’s heard it called, someone’s job now.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“…what is genuine emotion and what is business strategy. The modern condition.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“The failure of language. It’s a creative destruction. Out of that failure comes culture. Out of culture comes desire. Out of desire come products.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“We ache for this feeling, but it’s everywhere. Booze, drugs, sex, sport, art, prayer, music, meditation, virtual reality. Kids, hyperventilating, spinning in circles, feel oneness. Why William James called it the basic lesson of expanded consciousness—just tweak a few knobs and levers in the brain and bam.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“So the drop, the comedown, it’s not that we miss oneness once it’s gone. It’s that we suddenly can’t feel what we actually know is there. Phantom limb syndrome for the soul.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“A small robot standing on a busy city street corner, looking around. I see humans, but not humanity.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“Lion glances back at the pigeons. Sees a flicker he didn’t notice before. Remembers that the de-extinction program was a failed effort, realizes he’s looking at a light-vert. An AR projection of an almost. The bad dreams of a society disguised as a good time.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“Hybridization, he figures, is destined to become one of the ways this generation out-rebels the last generation. How we went from long-haired hippie freaks to pierced punk rockers to transsexual teenagers taking hormones.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“Words are just bits of information, but language is the full code. It’s wired into every stage of meaning-making, from basic emotions all the way up to abstract thought. Once you can speak a language, you can feel in that language. It’s automatic. It creates empathy.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“Shifting culture requires a confluence of inciting incidents. Something directional that leads to a tribal fracturing and reknitting. Often shows up in language first. In music. Fashion. It can feel a little like hope.” He points at the images. “This doesn’t feel like hope.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“You can’t scrub everything,” Lorenzo said. “Information gets what it wants, and it wants to be free.”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

“His journalism days are behind him. No longer does he get paid for the plot. Now he’s paid for saying yes or no, the sum total of his contractual obligations. His work in the world reduced to one-word responses. When, he wonders, did his life get so small?”

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

Portions of the article above previously appeared on the website, Consuming Cyberpunk. 
They appear here with permission of their original author.

Leave a Comment

1 comment

Ron September 2, 2020 - 10:34 pm

Good sweeping review. I like that you include earlier works in you analysis as it helps with fleshing out a history of cyberpunk, recommending books from its long history.


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