What if your cyber-self was an asswipe? That's the premise of Red Men, the freaktastic new novel by Idler editor Matthew De Abaitua. Red Men has a fresh take on the posthuman dream of uploading your consciousness into cyberspace. Cantor, an artificial intelligence from the future, can scan your brain and create a virtual copy of you, but the result will be pure id.
The simulated humans, the Red Men of the book's title, have all the memories and behavior traits of the originals. But they lack any frailty and refuse to compromise in the pursuit of their desires. They're like dark reflections. And they get off on tormenting flesh-and-blood people, including their "original" selves and their families.
The best parts of Red Men are pure psychological torture porn. The Red Men's corporation, Monad, hires a gaggle of unstable poets to work in "customer service." But after a while, it's obvious the poets are just there so the Red Men will have creative, sensitive people to molest. One Red Man, Harry Bravado, finds a million ways to fuck with a poor anarchist scribbler named Raymond, including impersonating Raymond's friends on the phone. When Raymond picks up his antidepressant prescription, the printed label tells him to take 47 of them and die.
Meanwhile, Monad has a plan to simulate an entire town — 20,000 Red Men — and sell the results to right-wing think-tanks and government groups that want to "prove" their regressive social policies work.
Monad's only enemy is Dyad, which is its total opposite. An underground anarchist organization, Dyad shuns the cyber world in favor of biopunk tech and drug-induced shared mind-scapes. Dyad makes its money by growing human organs in pigs and transplanting them into people. Its leader is an artificial consciousness transferred into the bodies of homeless men, who grow horrendously fat and stinky and then die.
After a while, you don't really care who wins the war between Monad and Dyad. You just want all these motherfuckers to stop excruciating our poor sensitive main characters. Not that there's any hope of escape, even in a Monad-less world: Work is hell, surveillance is universal and our brains end up the property of our employers no matter what we do. The main character, Nelson, tries to avoid letting Cantor suck up his memories and create his own Red Man. But all too soon, he gives in, and gains his own lookalike monster (except younger and with worse hair.)
Red Men does have some flaws: you can skim some of the long speeches about the nature of individuality and Gnosticism. There are some logical holes: at one point, the main character speculates that Monad may have created Dyad to force it to evolve. So if Monad ceases to exist, so will Dyad. Why??? And the novel uses POV weirdly: it's written in the first person, but the narrator is absent for huge swatches of the action. So you have to accept that the main character knows in amazing detail about events that happened in his absence. Finally, the tacked-on happy ending feels tacked on.
But Red Men is a breathtaking novel of ideas, and a sharp antidote to those shiny magical "upload your consciousness into cyberspace wheee" novels. It reminded me of an even more cynical (and dreamlike) version of Jim Munroe's Everyone In Silico. You can read an excerpt here.