Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Nightshade

A very unusual science fiction novel, NIGHTSHADE (1989), by Jack Butler, stars a vampire dwelling in a Terran colony on Mars. There he becomes entangled in a revolutionary plot. This Mars has wild, alien landscapes and harbors several different forms of intelligence, including self-aware AIs and “janglers,” illegally created cyborgs whose brains have been digitized. Other high-tech features such as advanced holograms contribute to the atmosphere of a futuristic thriller. The protagonist, vampire John Shade, gets involved with a self-aware robot and a female jangler named Jennie. He is changed permanently by falling in love with her. Shade eventually comes to terms with his humanity, if he can be considered human. The narrative maintains an ambiguity about his exact nature. We can’t be sure whether he is an undead former mortal or a member of another species who considers himself human until his first "death." Whenever he takes a victim’s blood, it changes him, “colors” him as he temporarily absorbs part of the prey’s personality. So he can’t escape having feelings for the people around him, no matter how reluctant.

The vampire, the robot, and the cyborg, as exiles from the dominant culture, discover a mutual kinship. Jennie tries to define their unique pseudo-family by proposing that they are "x-people...X for unknown"; Mandrake, the AI, corrects her with the premise, "Y is farther out than X.” Shade, in turn, proposes "a new dimension," concluding that "z is the farthest, the end.” They decide to call themselves "z-people, the androids from Planet Z. The z-oids," abbreviated as "zoids.” Having reinvented themselves as "zoids," Shade and his friends create a community of their own to make up for their alienation from the human community.

The novel’s most interesting feature, for me, is a metafictional Q-and-A epilogue in the voice of the AI, Mandrake, who raises and answers (sometimes cryptically) such questions about the story’s world as, “Why vampires?” and “Why were the vampires dying out?” He attributes the origin of vampirism to a "data-storage mutation." Scientists speculate that vampires can "store copies of themselves in some realm other than the biological, perhaps in a continuum something like the science fictional notion of hyperspace, or in the realm of pure information"; the drinking of blood, perhaps, functions as "an attempt to store the germ plasm, the blueprint of the race, safe from what harm might come." Vampires, therefore, far from being mere parasites, might be essential to humanity's survival. The final item in the questionnaire, however, preserves a core of mystery by asking, “How the hell can we get answers to all these questions? What if the answers don’t even exist?”

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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