“Life is so cheap in D.C.”: being a review of Pat Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup

I’m going to out myself right now and say I did not understand the last paragraph of this novel. I have several theories about what just happened, mind, but I’m not convinced of any of them, and so it goes with John Crowley’s Little, Big on the short shelf of books I really pretty much liked but feel like I have assigned my own ending to, in a sort of Rorschachian fashion, based on some interesting ink blots that the author provided.

In the case of Tea from an Empty Cup (Tor, 1998) that may just be thematically appropriate.

Tea from an Empty Cup is a post-cyberpunk locked-room murder mystery reflecting a world in which Japan has fallen from economic primacy and the Western world is regaining prosperity. Science fiction reflects the world it’s written in far more than it predicts the future, of course, and from the vantage point of twelve years later, the worldbuilding is as evocative of the concerns of the late 1990s as Neuromancer is of 1984 and Stand on Zanzibar is of 1968.

Science fiction is the literature of testing to destruction—and of metaphors made manifest. In Tea, Cadigan gives us a Japan that is not merely turning inward, but has actually vanished from the outside world, destroyed by a tremendous series of natural disasters. Its surviving people have been driven to diaspora to survive and evolved a sort of exile culture amid the larger world—a world dominated by dissatisfied people working dead-end jobs and comforting themselves by virtually visiting realer-than-real Artificial Realities that mimic the cyberpunk fantasies of the 1980s.

And somebody is killing some of them.

Just a few. Here and there, in crimes where the virtual death (in the supposedly safe AR world) mimics the real one—or perhaps vice versa.

Homicide detective Konstantin is the first to put together the geographically separated murders into a series. Although she is a virtual reality neophyte, she dons the persona of the most recent victim and ventures into a post-apocalyptic AR world—a Noo Yawk Sitty that would leave Snake Plisken comfortably at home—to try to solve the crime. 

Meanwhile, Yuki—a woman who is an associate of someone linked to the most recent victim—has been more-or-less kidnapped by an infamous madam and is forced unprepared into the same virtual world, where she too is seeking a missing person. There is some indication that she had been chosen for this role because she is a descendent of the Japanese diaspora—as the most recent victim was pretending to be—although the exact reason why that might be important is at first a mystery.

This parallel was one of the weaker links in the story for me—the women are similar in their motivations (both recently heartbroken, both unfamiliar with the environment) and though I appreciated the structural reason the two heroines might mirror each other, it did lead to a certain feeling of repetition in the story. Also, there was an air of Orientalism to parts of the narrative that concerned me, although I suspect—given the prologue—that it was meant to do so.

That said, however, there’s a lot to like in this book. It does some deft critiquing of the baseline assumptions of the 1980s cyberpunk narrative from the lofty perspective of a decade later, and I really enjoyed the murder mystery aspects—especially the red herring, and one final twist that I did not see coming at all.

And there’s a great echoing thematic thing going on in here about expectations and aspirations and the reality of reality versus what we would like reality to be versus our perceptions of reality. In particular, the book picks away at the idea that nothing in the virtual world has consequences, that it’s all free—the narrative of this story acts as a deconstruction of that concept. And a deconstruction of idealization and mythologization—of nations, of relationships, and in a particularly brilliant twist, of the very origin myths themselves.

I just really wish I understood what the heck that last paragraph of the story is getting at. I can make up all kinds of interesting things it might mean, but I have no idea which one jibes with the author’s intent.

Elizabeth Bear likes tea better than no tea.


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