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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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”