I’ve talked about two books of William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy on this blog before and how I enjoyed them because they took some of the darkness from the cyberpunk genre and replaced it with a feeling of cooperation and human (or AI) connection in a hostile future. I really liked those books, but I still found myself craving some of the cynicism that goes along with the cool sunglasses, neon cityscapes, nightmarish future trends, and anti-hero characters of true cyberpunk. Thankfully, Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star, the first book in the Wonderland Cycle, provided a good dose of cyberpunk that’s as dark as can be – and also a great read.
Taking place in a dismal near-future Seattle (a city which already feels dark enough to be cyberpunk), Shadow of a Dead Star tells the story of a federal investigator named Walken as he is swept in a particularly vile case. It starts with Walken investigating the appearance of three Dolls – children abducted from the street and modified into brainless, living sex toys by the mad scientists in the nightmarish, criminal country of Great Siam – which is nicknamed Wonderland. Of course, the Dolls are only the tip of the iceberg. Before Walken knows it, the Dolls are abducted by a Korean Gang, who are then slaughtered. An Albanian crime boss, a ruthless reporter moonlighting as an internet porn star, and plenty of other crazy characters are involved. Walken’s only ally is Bobbi, a topnotch hacker who provides some welcome support as he struggles to untangle the mystery.
The cyberpunk of the 80s pretty much predicted our modern existence exactly, and I sure as hell as hope this book’s vision of the future never comes to pass. As you can expect from the horrific nature of the Dolls, the future world of Shadow of a Dead Star is pitch-black. It’s a cruel surveillance state with a privatized police force, super-powerful amoral corporations, and stretches of the city which are post-apocalyptic, crime-ridden wastelands. Shean does a great job describing the sprawling near future metropolis, populated by junkies, hackers who plug their brains into their machines, criminals, and corrupt cops. It’s the kind of story where the pulsating beats of Lost Years, Kavinksy, or Com Truise form the perfect soundtrack. Characters are another high point — Walken is a straight-shooting good guy, and his morality is very refreshing and provides a great contrast with the nastiness of the world. It feels good to have someone you can actually root for as he struggles through all this darkness.
Shadow of a Dead Star ends in a very weird place too. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending – but then I remembered that a lot of cyberpunk classics have endings that pull the rug out from under you. Akira in particular comes to mind. The ending makes sense for the grim world of the story, and there’s a sequel, Red Eye, (as well as another book called Bone Wires set in the same world) that will doubtlessly provide more of the story.
So if you like cyberpunk – with all its sunglasses and trench coats, blinding neon, and pounding synth beats – I guarantee that you’re going to enjoy Shadow of the Dead Star. I certainly did and I can’t wait to plug my brain into the other two books in the series.