Following in what seems to be a staple cyberpunk trait and tradition, I spent 80 percent of Simon Ing’s 1992 novel Hot Head (re-released by Gollancz in January 2014) wondering what the fuck was going on. The other 20 percent I spent wondering if it mattered. Ings is literary, obviously well read, and his books very much well written. His most recent—Wolves—impressed me enough to buy another four of his works blind. As disorienting as Hot Head often was, it hasn’t left my mind since I put it down.
A “hot head” is a person with bio tech implants in their skull, a living-computer, maybe even post-human. Malise Arnim is a hot head, but when we first meet her she is a pretty average young girl, growing up and living with her father in Italy after escaping bad times in the home country. Then BAM, the narrative switches to a future where Malise, who has been up-well (in space) for years, can barely walk in Earth’s gravity without the help of an exoskeleton and has a head full of tech that heightens her senses. Having it removed would feel like being blinded. As “fat” (as the tech in her head is called) is illegal on Earth, it inevitably is. Left without the plugins that have—literally and figuratively—become a part of her, Malise is left stripped and floundering in a way distinctly reminiscent of Case’s situation at the start of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and like Case, she spends the rest of the novel being pushed from one fucked up, exploitative situation to another as a result.
The narrative of Malise’s past is an easy read. She grows up, discovers herself, becomes independent of her father, falls in love, takes drugs, experiences tragedy. Classic, realist coming-of-age narrative. The future narrative is hard to follow. Who was that character again? Which corporation? Have I heard that name before? Are we ever going to get an explanation? Ah shit, more made up slang. No wait, I got that, ok, ok, this is starting to make sense. Aaand here comes another tech description I can’t follow. Fuck. The familiar back story helped Hot Head go beyond the genre bounds of cyberpunk while giving us a line familiar enough to carry the reader between the known present to Ings’ strange but not entirely unthinkable future of implanted tech and future of sentient, self-sustaining AI.
I would have preferred being thrown in the deep end of the future story first, then brought up for air through the interludes from Malise’s past, but Ings makes this progression in reverse. The familiar story is our anchor, and entering the future timeline like having your head dunked in a bucket of cold water again and again. The experience was jarring, but I think that was probably the point—the reader is jostled between past and future, between space and Earth, between war and peace, between a head full of high-tech sensory equipment and a dull “blindness.” Ings had to do some explaining—if you’re concentrating you can figure out the tech and piece together the plot—so instead of completely obscuring the tech, he creates confusion through abrupt shifts of story, detailed and complicated tech descriptions, and unexplained name dropping. Form mirrors content. Content manipulates us into feeling things the characters are feeling, though we feel them for different reasons.
The unexplained names and corporations, the dense explanation of the political situation that starts the book before the reader has a reason to care, and the complex tech Ings describes were the basis of my disorientation and discomfort while reading, but, in part, it was the very same elements that made the book successful. If a sci fi book set in some who-knows-when contains tech I can easily understand, recognize, or explain, then we’re not talking about the future, we’re talking about now (or we’re talking with an author with a different scope of imagination). I’m of the school of readers that thinks alien life is more likely to look like Solaris than War of the Worlds. That is to say, I think it’s likely to be so foreign that humans barely register it as life. My thoughts on future tech lean in the same direction. Why assume that human tech will evolve in the way we predict? Did the doctors of the 16th century foresee medical practice as we know it today? Would they even have been able to imagine it? Doubtful. Doing so would have called doubt onto far more than just their “scientific” beliefs, and I assume that it will be the same with human tech in the future. If we can imagine it in 2014, it probably isn’t what’s coming. Yet Ings presents AI so unfamiliar and strange that I am willing to nod and say hey, maybe.
Hot Head could be, but isn’t your classic robot rebellion story. This is AI gone outside of the human realm of understanding and thus control. It appears dangerous—and the vaguely apocalyptic setting of the future story confirms that it has caused destruction—but the real danger is that humans do not understand and therefore cannot effectively communicate with this AI. Hot Head makes the idea of a robot rebellion simultaneously more horrifying and more interesting, particularly because a large part of the tech Ings shows us is inside our own heads, rendering humans as unrecognizable as the AI that has gone rogue. Extra bonus for tarot people: You’re really going to enjoy the role the cards and their meanings play out here (including a place in almost every chapter name), but you’re going to have to read Hot Head yourself to find out why and how.
Malise’s physical handicap (crippled by Earth’s gravity after too many years upwell), her background (Muslim), and her sexual orientation (bisexual) make her an utterly unique character—this isn’t the hulking whitedudebro or strong ladybro hero carbons you get in your average sci fi or fantasy book—yet do not other her. She never feels like an outsider; she always feels like us, no matter who “we” are. Every book should be capable of a feat so small, but fuck us all, we’re still living in a time when it bears mention. Outside of Malise’ father and Malise’s one-time male lover, every single character with a known sexual orientation is gay, and it’s no big thing. Here here.
Get out your lit degrees and your magnifying glasses
Ings’ work is the kind of SF that I would recommend to a lit snob I wanted to convert to the genre, and the literary references in Hot Head just might be the tools we need to pick its own lock. With a short but loud nod to Laurence Sterne’s 1759 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Ings gives the reader an entirely new lens with which to view the work. For those unfamiliar, see that entirely black page on 109, the one following the death of a character our narrator is mentally controlling? That was a trick done for the very first time in Tristram Shandy, a humorous, digressive, experimental fictional biography that makes fun of itself, the standard biographical form, noses, birth, and just about everyone and everything else it could lob a stone at.
If Hot Head is following in its footsteps, then the amplification of classic cyberpunk devices that so disoriented me is doing far more subtle work. It is poking fun, re-inventing, and analyzing. This—this kind of textual multitasking—is what makes a book a classic.
Tristram Shandy also refers heavily to John Locke’s 1689 work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I haven’t read it, but considering the thematic overlap between Locke’s essay and Hot Head, I’m willing to bet the two are in intense, if one-sided conversation.
Hot Head is the kind of book you need to read more than once. Not just need to, but want to, are compelled to, are dogged by until you give in and give it another pat. Without the distraction of having to scramble to follow the plot (and that was a lamentable distraction during my first read, useful though my reaction may have been for the big picture). Hot Head contains multitudes, depth, and the reading experience is addictive not for its ease, but for the challenging, ecstatic excavation that it offers the reader open-handed.
Where I got it: Bought, dealer’s room at LonCon3