The first science fiction books that I purposefully picked up and read (at the age of 25—I’m a late bloomer) fell into two camps: cyberpunk and feminist SF. I loved the grittiness and the expositions on technology of cyberpunk; I was invigorated by the politics and thoughtful critiques of gender, race, sexuality, and class in feminist SF.
I began looking for stories that exemplified the best of both worlds, and, indeed, I found many, but nothing prepared me for the ground-shifting shock of Misha’s Red Spider White Web (1990). It’s been nearly eight years since I first read the boundary-crossing novel and I can vividly remember the feeling of being utterly shattered by Misha’s frenetic writing and her desperate, brilliant characters surviving a violent, brutal future world (but so close to our own that there is no comfort to be found when putting the book down).
Red Spider White Web is the sort of book that haunts. It was no surprise to me then that, after I left academia, the very first published thing I wrote was a review of Red Spider White Web (for the wonderful blog, SF Mistressworks). As my current interests address representations of disability in SF, I have found myself again thinking of Misha’s bleak narrative and her awesome (in the truest sense of the word, the awesome of terror and wonder) vision of the future. I chose this book for “This is Awesome” because Misha is a master of intersectionality: her characters are not just one thing, they speak to a multitude of marginalized voices.
As a writer of scholarly persuasion, I tend to pay attention to two main elements when I’m reading a book: first, the quality and style of the prose, and second, the depth of meaning in the narrative. Here is how Misha begins her story:
“His circuit is a skull jugger. He’s a factory guard who stalks the silent chemical night. Eye guard transluscent aquariums of red agar. This. This is rehabrehabrehab ilit tation. Watch out! Ko Spiders. Arachnid fury. Hai shimasu!”
This is the voice of Tommy, a “mad” ex-agent turned street prophet. Where other writers might reduce Tommy to his apparent insanity and remove his agency in the narrative, Misha immediately complicates this tired technique: “‘Freak Tom!!’ he shouted. But it sounded like ‘freedom’ in the hollow steel.” Through his voice, we learn that he is a “terrible enhanced man” made by the corrupt bureaucrats in control of earth’s last resources. Tommy navigates a world that is bleak and cruel: acid rain falls, people need full body suits to protect themselves from the environment, synthetic food knots the stomach, perversions of all kinds are eagerly sought, disease and cannibalism are rampant, and violence reigns. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tommy, both flawed and brave, is neither hero nor anti-hero: he exists, as best he can, on his own terms. Misha’s skillfully shapes Tommy as a three-dimensional character, and his narrative adds further depth to an already scathing critique of the Western world.
Paralleling the figure of Tommy, but ultimately placed at the center of the story, is the equally enigmatic character of Kumo, a woman who barely ekes out a living as a holo-artist. Again, Misha introduces us to a character who is set apart from “normal” society, and who knows very well the physical and mental costs in surviving a dying world: we meet her waking up with pain shooting through her body and follow her as she must literally fight her way through the streets (clad in a body suit of shark denticles) to find a cup of coffee. Misha doesn’t create an easy character to identify with—and that’s part of her point. Kumo is not the relatable (safe) cyberspace cowboy of cyberpunk: she’s vicious (by need), she is not able to transcend her physical world for the safety of cyberspace, and she is driven by the need to create something tangible, something that speaks to her as real.
And when Kumo and Tommy come together, it is, quite simply, an awesome moment. Almost at the exact center of the book, Misha reveals to us the true faces that lie behind their masks and dark goggles:
“‘Holy Thomas!’ he shouted. He stared hard at her. He had never seen—he hadn’t expected. He threw his head back—all his white artie teeth showed—his shining carmine gums, amber skin, dark slanting eyes, smooth cheeks. They laughed and laughed together. Female and male, but other than that, the faces mirrors, mirrors, of each other.”
This moment of recognition, replication, and acceptance speaks to the possibility of hope and belonging in Red Spider White Web, and, for that, it is rare and precious to both the characters and the reader. It is a scene that the reader will need to revisit if they wish to finish the book with any other feeling than despair. Misha crafts a space for identification, but it is not meant for everyone: it is for the disenfranchised, the ignored, and the rightfully angry.
Misha is a writer who is, in many ways, outside of her time (but so very aware of the need to be present). Red Spider White Web deserves to be picked up by a new generation and read and dreamt about (though the dreams may be nightmares).
Kathryn Allan is an academic copyeditor and coach, and independent scholar. She is editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Cure (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellow (2013-14). She blogs and tweets as Bleeding Chrome. Her current project, with Djibril al-Ayad (of Futurefire.net Publishing), is co-editing a forthcoming anthology, Accessing the Future, that will explore disability—and the intersectionality of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. Please pre-order the anthology and help the editors pay a professional rate to all authors.