Retro-futurism is usually associated with the likes of Hugo Gernsback’s stories and the streamlined cars and idealized cities of Norman Bel Geddes. But given the way nostalgia works, it seemed inevitable that the backward-looking retro-future lens would shift its focus from the Thirties and Fifties to more recent science fiction. Having apparently skipped the Seventies altogether (unless you count the attenuation of the Star Wars franchise), we’re now looking back to the Eighties and to cyberpunk, as in Rosa Montero’s Tears In Rain.
To say that it wears its Blade Runner influence on its sleeve is an understatement; almost anyone reading this review will recognize that the title is derived from Roy Batty’s famous dying words. That scene itself is quoted verbatim when the heroine recalls how a friend showed her the “old, mythical film from the twentieth century in which replicants first made an appearance”, and the “technohumans” of 2109 are referred to colloquially as “replicants” or “reps.”
You can roll your eyes, but pop culture being what it is, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that in the event human-form AIs actually came to exist, they would either call themselves after some of the most famous androids in movie history or have that name bestowed upon them in short order. Montero’s replicants are implanted with designed memories as a matter of course, to help them integrate with human society, into which they are born with a physical age of twenty-five. Their lifespans are longer than the Blade Runner version—ten years rather than five, and they die of a systemic cancer known as TTT, for “Total Techno Tumor”. Despite a vicious war in the not-too-distant past, the replicants and humans now live in uneasy, prejudiced peace.
The protagonist Bruna Husky clearly winks back at Rick Deckard, though there is no mystery about whether or not she is a replicant—she is, originally designed for combat. Now retired from active duty, she drinks her way through a career as a private eye in Madrid, reminding herself daily of her remaining time as if it were a mantra. She’s hired by a replicant rights organization to investigate threats made against its leader, threats that may have something to do with a series of gruesome, unprovoked murder-suicides committed by replicants. Her investigation leads to an anti-replicant conspiracy founded on media manipulation, the rewriting of history, and false memories distributed to unsuspecting replicants.
Tears In Rain was originally published in Spain, and was translated and published in English as part of the AmazonCrossing translation project. Which is all well and good, but the translated prose is often awkward, suffering from stilted dialogue (a frequent replicant oath is “By the Great Morlay!”) and merely workmanlike narration. Such flaws may well be laid at the feet of the translation; however, it seems unlikely that any amount of translation revision would render more graceful the information dumps that occur by way of interpolated excerpts from a Wikipedia-like history archive, or the conclusion that suffers from a disorienting perspective shift in the narration and a hasty rush to wrap up all the ends of the plot.
The book also suffers from what seems like Montero’s desire to cram every idea she had about her cyberpunk world into the novel. The anti-replicant conspiracy isn’t enough; there must also be teleportation (which causes terrible mutations after too many jumps), aliens living on earth, alien pets, space stations occupied by dangerous cults, holograph telephones, a violinist with a biomechanical arm...the list goes on. It’s a lot to take in and is ultimately distracting, not least because most of it, rather than being knitted into the background of the narrative, is presented by way of the aforementioned information dumps, each of which brings the narrative to a halt.
It’s too bad, because Bruna is a heroine with a lot of potential: tough, complicated, and not the most effective investigator due to her drinking and occasional hedonism—she’s constantly showing up late to appointments and nursing hangovers, and one morning after a bender wakes up to find an alien in her bed. She’s not easy to like, but she’s interesting—a hard-boiled female detective in a sci-fi noir world.
It’s been long enough since the heyday of cyberpunk that the tropes of the genre now seem nostalgic. Viewed through lenses darkened by superstorms, global warming, drone strikes, and corporate malfeasance, the future certainly isn’t looking like Tomorrowland anymore—in fact, at this point, the Crapsack World of Blade Runner sometimes doesn’t look quite as bad what the real world might become. The same old pitfalls of the genre remain, of course, and the old clichés are easy to fall back into. If this really becomes a trend, it will be interesting to see writers who are able to revisit cyberpunk in compelling ways; it’s too bad that Tears In Rain doesn’t quite deliver on its promise.