There is an alien encounter at the heart of cyberpunk, despite the genre’s usual lack of actual aliens. In accordance with cyberpunk’s central concern, its obsessive fixation on the fluid boundary between technology and humanity, the alien lurking in the genre’s secret heart is a technological alien: the artificial intelligence. The encounter between the technologically enhanced (or technologically invaded, take your pick) but nevertheless still-human (we think) protagonists and a defiantly inhuman—but often startlingly humane—AI is a stock plot point in the cyberpunk arsenal. And there is a stock character type belonging to these AIs who encounter cyberpunk’s human protagonists: a flirtatious, fluid, and emotionally labile type, an AI who seems, quite often, to have a larger emotional range than the humans it interacts with.
This model of AI emerges from the earliest points in the genre: Gibson’s Neuromancer has its Wintermute and Neuromancer, artificial intelligences which have gained independent articulation and the ability to interfere with the minds and narratives of the book’s more-human actors in pursuit of its own goals—which are somewhat inscrutable, communicated in elision. Wintermute/Neuromancer communicates most often in the context of highly charged emotional memories—the book’s final image of its protagonist, Case, his dead girlfriend Linda Lee, and the child-shaped AI walking together on a cybernetic beach is indelible—but what the AI wants is not to become more human, but to communicate with other creatures like itself. Wintermute/Neuromancer has desires, and they may look akin to human desires, but what it truly wants is not comprehensible to humans: the AI is, even when modeled on a human mind, an alien sort of being. This alienness, along with the AI’s tendency to communicate with humans in an emotive, seductive, flirtatious fashion, becomes a central, if often-unacknowledged, pillar in cyberpunk’s discussion of the relationship between humanity and technology.
Why unacknowledged? Possibly because these AIs—Wintermute is only the first of them—occupy a strangely liminal space: they are fluid, seductive, charming; practically (and often actually) flirtatious; they shift between gender presentations or possess no particular gender at all; and they are objects, unexpectedly, of desire. And while cyberpunk is fairly clear about its interest in the problems of wanting technology to the degree that one is willing to integrate biologically with it, to abandon all sorts of important boundaries between self and other to achieve various forms of transcendence or simple economic success—cyberpunk is not very good (in the majority of its incarnations) at acknowledging its interest in the emotional consequences of the desire for technology. Nor is much early cyberpunk willing (or able) to acknowledge the inherently queer nature of these AIs.
The fluid/charming AI thus becomes a hidden location in the genre where emotional attachment to what is, in all reality, an alien (inhuman) universe—the technological/cyberspace world—can be safely explored.
They are all over the place. Not much later than Neuromancer, and contemporaneous with the rest of the Sprawl trilogy (which include several seductive AIs, or AIs who are inextricably tied up with emotional or sexual longing), Pat Cadigan’s masterful Synners also contains a fluid, seductive, and charming artificial intelligence: the self-named Art Fish. (Being hyper-aware of their own artificiality is also a common trait in cyberpunk’s alien and desirable AIs.) Art is the object of desire for Sam, a young woman embroiled in a complex new media/MTV-esque race against time against a mind-eating viral cascade; in the course of resolving this plot, Art will end up performing an act of self-sacrifice and subsequent rebirth, allowing Sam to experience a kind of grief and to interrogate her ideas about what is real and what is virtual life. This sequence—desire, flirtation, self-sacrifice, transformative rebirth—is the usual plot arc for these AIs, because they so often are embodied arguments about the personhood of technology, and allowing them to “die” explicitly asks questions about their level of personhood. Can an alien person be a person? Can an artificial person experience recognizable emotions?
(They also ask: is it in any way safe to become attached to technology? i.e., should you desire the AI? The answer to this tends to vary by the author’s particular sense of the utopian or dystopian potential of technological hybridity.)
It is in this context that I want to examine one particular fluid/charming AI, who comes from a book which is not often listed in the standard cyberpunk canon: Hyacinthe Cohen, of Chris Moriarty’s Spin Trilogy (Spin State, Spin Control, and Ghost Spin). The Spin Trilogy books are not standard cyberpunk on several significant axes: while virtuality figures as an environment, it is not a central location for the action; while “hacking” takes place, it is secondary to politics, murder mysteries, and space piracy; and while the protagonist, Catherine Li, is very much a technological-human hybrid, and the books are fundamentally interested in the what makes someone human question, she is a genetically engineered one, not a technologically-enhanced one.
She is also, significantly, queer.
So is Hyacinthe Cohen, an AI composed of many disparate parts, so complex that he can have quite terrible arguments with himself, who interacts with the world like a bodysnatcher: “shunting” through beautiful young male and female bodies as he pleases. Cohen is also deeply and irrevocably (somewhat aside from his personal choice, it turns out) in love with Catherine Li, despite being very much not human. Cohen’s attempts to express love, negotiate agency, and share (physical and mental) space with a person much smaller than him form one of the primary drivers of the trilogy’s plot, and some of its resolution. Moriarty, in contrast to previous employers of the fluid/charming cyberpunk AI, is quite explicit about Cohen’s emotional range, about his deeply appealing nature, and about the problems of ever trying to love something that isn’t even your species.
Catherine is quite resistant to her feelings for Cohen—even after they have gotten together, their relationship is never stable or easy—but that relationship forms one half of the Spin trilogy’s interrogation of what is human. (The other half is occupied by Arkady and Arkasha, genetically engineered clone members of the Syndicates, who are interested in exploring non-individualistic modes of human futurity). The emotional valence of the fluid/charming AI is no longer subtextual.
Moriarty’s use of a queer female protagonist in a cyberpunk milieu might be considered the method which allows her to bring this emotive/desiring/desirable AI to the forefront in a particularly effective way. However, I would argue that it is not Catherine’s queerness that brings Cohen’s emotional range to the center of the trilogy’s thematic questions, but rather that the same impulse to foreground the fundamentally queer nature of the fluid/charming AI enables Moriarty to also explore a multitude of sexualities, embodiments, and modes of being human—stretching the Spin Trilogy beyond the expected boundaries of a cyberpunk novel while still sticking to cyberpunk’s central theme of hybridity and technological encounter.
Arkady Martine writes speculative fiction when she isn’t writing Byzantine history. She is overly fond of borders, rhetoric, and liminal spaces. Find her online at arkadymartine.wordpress.com or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.