I generally don’t post my reviews here but this book is soooo fucking good if this convinces even one more person to get it and talk about it, it’ll be worth it!!
“What do you know? Kimi ga nihonjin dewaarimasen. You’re not human. You’re not a man. You’re not even white.”
In Misha’s Red Spider, White Web (the only cyberpunk novel written by a Native American?) there is an unapologetic sense of creeping reality that will hook you from the start. People praise early cyberpunk for being speculative while being dark and gritty—showing the downside of our capitalistic excesses. But they often are critiqued for still showing this world from a clear sense of privilege, too. Foreign cultures are fetishized, non male characters are rarely fleshed out very well, and a multitude of other problems.
She liked the high places, away from the subterranean rage of the working class. No one was there to mirror her image in their funhouse looking-glass.
…Ded Tek was a city of hot lavenders, ketchup reds and taffy yellows. It was all wrong, the color and the acidic rain and the grinding morning cold.
Red Spider White Web does away with all of that. Though I still need to read some first wave cyberpunk, in my mind, this is the best first wave cyberpunk to have been written—by far.
It starts by having the main character, Kumo, struggling to navigate her way through a bleak dystopian city. She has a hell of a time getting through and she’s just trying to get some coffee. Some coffee!! Misha sets this punishing, demoralizing tone very well and never lets go. This city is disgusting. It is disheartening with most every interaction, “it’s” clearly targeting marginalized individuals too, as Kumo experiences all of these things on a daily basis going through a routine; then shrugging it off and plowing forward. If you thought “woof, Case has it hard,” in Neuromancer, ha! This book shows just how much cyberpunk missed the mark and why marginalized folks who wrote cyberpunk were better at it and brought an entirely different experience to the table to consider.
…it’s a sinister wonderland. My life, cleaned like a revolver, levels in the direction of happiness. Come on. It’s a Marxian dream, possessions divides, individuality erased, money gone, voices stilled, sorrow a luxury that can’t be bought.
Kumo is literally starving everyday and still chooses not to eat some food because it is bad for her, essentially like eating plastic and doesn’t have any nutritional value what-so-ever. She knows that if she consumes it her stomach will temporarily be sated but she will be sick later and would rather continue starving. She is fierce and never acquiesces to anyone; life, her friends, her way of life, her morals. Nothing.
Mari looked at Kumo and shuddered. Even with a certain savage grace Kumo looked put together all wrong. Too large where it should be small, to small where it should be large. Too misshapen to be a true human, yet too human to be a good animal.
The main character’s, for the most part, are all artists. Barely making ends meet by peddling their various wares at a market where they are gawked at and fetishized by people with credits. Kumo is a holo-artist, and art, as we learn throughout the book, is the only thing that matters to her. As long as she can do her art, she cares about little else. And even her art is transient, just like the moments she gets to practice it as well as its perceived value in this world. Fleeting and ephemeral.
“You cause a lot of trouble for people Kumo,” Motler complained…
“I mean to,” Kumo said, once again thinking about her art."
In the face of a very remorseless and sometimes difficult to even read, let alone imagine, circumstances; we also learn that these artists that literally are trying to get by (and are happy when they can even bathe) sleep in straw with lice and bugs, have to piss and shit in buckets in the streets—are also being preyed on by another source. Murders unfold throughout the book, targeting artists and ramping up a slow burning legitimately all too real kind of horror as an undercurrent to a cyberpunk dystopian story.
Kumo spoke again. __
“To watch me is to eat glass. Can’t you feel me glittering in your stomach?”
Artists are faced with an alternative, in which they can try and “sell out” and go sell their art and ideas to Mickey-san. Essentially a parody on Disney world that is hyper effective at deconstructing commodification of art and capitalism, in general. Should they stay and continue to be targeted or use the only “good” thing they have to try and enter a safe space? Just one of the book’s themes and shown through the eyes of many of the characters, all the while building tension and showing that the world that started out more real than most cyberpunk, can still get worse; and, because of this biting, hard world, the moments of true joy and reprieve are truly meaningful and touching.
"You’d sell out too if you had half a chance."
Kumo snorted and shook her head. “You can’t sell out if you don’t buy in…”
Every character is marginalized and intersectional in some way, including the main antagonist, which…can’t really be considered one almost? Without giving too much away, it’s something you’ll have to read for yourself and decide, which I think is the point. While character’s are sexualized by others, the dynamics, including power, are extremely well written and considered. Written in 1990 there is one character, who is intersex, that has she/his his/her pronouns throughout. Being misgendered sometimes based on the characters, and having a sexual interaction that is very well handled for once (I think).
David’s pale face blushed and his/her heavy-lashed lids closed softly over grey eyes. A Concert pianist—disowned by family because of his/her sexual gender—that is—both genders. His/her full pouting mouth took in the station with a hunger and horror. S/he coughed.
Misha tackles topics other cyberpunks never dared and with a deft hand combined with what seems like thoughtful consideration. The book is brutal and won’t let up, hitting on its themes with every paragraph. The character’s experience real anger and that anger isn’t minimized like in a lot of other cyberpunk stories that interact with marginalized characters. In fact it is explicitly stated out of character that it is valid, and since it is from no character’s perspective, it is not taken to be subjective but instead an unequivocal statement of fact.
If you take a step back and examine the text, Misha’s prose are all like that. Where generally the prose in cyberpunk is to allow for the reader to release a build up of tension or compare technology to something else, Misha instead uses her prose to never. let. up. Ever. This sort of becomes something approximating horror, and builds the tension, ever is it present. The descriptions are visceral (in the older terminology of the word), there is blood and guts and shit and things people do not want to think about in unyielding detail.
You’re sick. You were nearly killed. All kinds of shitheads are out to tear you to pieces. You were in pain, hungry, cold, filthy. Here you have safety, comfort, even, even love." JuJube put his hand son her face in a gesture of practices affection. They trembled a little with an almost instant desire. "And you want to leave—because of your—your twisted visions."
Kumo pushed his hands away. Her hunger for affection was lost in her desire for her art.
This is horror is never a surprise either, the book begins from a point of view of the killer as though you yourself are killing someone. Making the reader automatically complicit in the atrocity unfolding. And, in some ways this death is mirrored in the examination of western culture (which is exceedingly more evident as it progresses) and made clear with the ending; it is a very good ending.
He could feel her tendons in his hands, the flesh melting away, the taut strings of desire snapping one by one.
It is a hard thing to read sometimes but well worth it. I am not sure there is anything that could have been improved and it is a good thing that this came out, and a sad thing that as soon as it did, the self proclaimed gatekeepers of cyberpunk itself attempted to shut the doors.
How many rough blows had she suffered? How many times had she been an unwilling step for the selfish souls of her fellow opposite gender? And the Pinkies, so white and so male, were like living stiff boots of conquerors.