The Man Who Melted
by Jack Dann
Cover Artist: Nick Stathopoulous
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pyr Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781591024873
Date: 02 January, 2007 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
This tale of tapping into a consensual consciousness beyond the grave is put together from a quartet of short stories written between 1981 and 83...which places it just before Cyberpunk's magnum opus, Neurormancer, was written. Which is interesting, because if you transpose the notion of computer connections with the beyond with access to the web, you've got very similar worlds. Robert Silverberg talks about the continuum of engineering versus fabulistic fiction in the introduction, noting that Dann is writing a future of his imagination rather than projections, but if you were to place The Man Who Melted on such a scale, it would only be a bit further into the fantastic than William Gibson's breakout novel. In many respects it turns out to address the same themes. In The Man Who Melted, we follow a twisted tangle of lovers, at the center of which is Raymond Mantle, who lost his memories of his wife in a mass telepathic storm called the Great Scream. She happened to be his sister as well, but we're not supposed to be shocked by that, this being the future and the genetic consequences of that sort of thing being moot. Now Ray spends his life in an obsessed search for her so that he can get back whatever it is he's lost, and he drags along friends, lovers, and others who want to use him to unlock the door between the living and the dead. Ray "knows" that he'd be better off moving forward than chasing the phantom of his missing, and probably dead wife, and he's more or less aware that he's in love with his friend Joan, but he can't shake off his search, and throughout it all he feels her calling him. But through the connected minds of the screamers there's no way to tell if she's calling from the land of the living, or the other side. Ultimately Ray faces Pogo's dilemma ("we have met the enemy and he is us") when he has to confront painful knowledge that lies buried with the memories of his wife.
The story and writing are both compelling stuff, and when you consider that it was written at the beginning of the eighties you'll be intrigued at what Dann has tossed casually into the mix; ordering food over the net (before there was a "net"), Islamic revolts in Afghanistan that catch entire governments in their wake, reporters as bloggers and more. Classic SF fans will note that Heinlein's moving walkways from "The Roads Must Roll" have made it into Dann's future, complete with lanes that get faster towards the center. But what strikes me as interesting is the similarities and differences between The Man Who Melted and Neuromancer, especially since they both came out at about the same time.
In Neuromancer, Gibson's protagonist Case, is describes as "Too much the artiste. The artiste of the slightly funny deal." while Raymond Mantle, the man who melts, is a genuine artist, though he considers himself an illustrator and advertising graphic guy. Not so say those around him; "Our friend is a genius, an artist, of the sublime..." The two men are similarly clever, and it's tempting to say that they're both self centered, but I think that misses the mark. Case never seems to get much beyond his own needs of the moment, and his relationship with the mirror shaded "Molly" never goes much more than skin deep. Ray, on the other hand, is nothing if not self-absorbed, but his absorption has a purpose, to discover the truth of his life so that he can go on living it, and everything he does is driven by his desire to make connections and find meaning.
Now, while Case is unable to access the net because his synapses have been hacked as the result of his double crossing his employers. Raymond's plight is that he can't remember his wife, the memory of whom was washed from his brain during the Great Scream, and outburst of psychotic humans who channel a shared reality telepathically with those around them. Ray is desperate to find his lost memories, if not his wife, and even willing to plug into a dying screamer to experience the connection with every one in that web of consciousness. Take away the mystical parts and it gets very web-like, including high tech devices to connect your mind to the web.
Where Neuromancer is about the emergence of AI's and daring-do in the real world, as well as VR, The Man Who Melted is a much more mature work, though probably not as much fun because of it. The writer's style reminds me of Gwyneth Jones' White Queen trilogy, which I have very high regard for, and it seems to me that the author is taking on deeper issues here, with much more complex characters. Perhaps that's a sign that he's more rooted in the New Wave than Cyberpunk, where character trumped technology. Indeed, where the SF old guard resisted the New Wave, Gibson was surprised to find that they threw open the gates for cyberpunk and strew the streets with flowers while he, Bruce Sterling and a few others rode in on their glittering chrome steeds. That's not so much a surprise, at least in retrospect, if you consider that cyberpunk is really just technoir, a darker version of golden age SF, and that the New Wave was a rejection of techno tales for stories where human nature drove the plot, not space drives or hard drives.
Both stories are set around singularity events, though couched in different terms. For Gibson it's the accepted (now, anyway) notion of AIs taking things over, or vying for supremacy, while Dann's world takes the idea of a spiritual reservoir that we can use technology to access which threatens to pull us all across it's threshold into a state of common consciousness. When those two views were originally put forth, they may have seemed radically different, but if you consider the vast amount of thought on uploading virtual selves into cyberspace, the differences become less definite.
It's often been stated that Neuromancer laid out the template for the internet and Gibson's work had tremendous impact on the forming of cyberspace. That's no doubt true, but no less so than that The Man Who Melted shows us what we'll find a the end of the information superhighway, and that the real challenge isn't creating technology, but using it to explore our humanity.