Last Tango in Cyberspace, the second novel from journalist Steven Kotler, is proof that an excess of style isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a cerebral cyberpunk mood piece about the ways culture is shaped and consumed by technology, couched in a twisty-conspiracy narrative about a drug that increases empathy among its users. It offers a fresh sort of cyberpunk, concerned less with the specifics of tech and more with its impact on a culture stratified into cults, sub-cults, and poly-tribes. With an emphasis on style and atmosphere, Kotler lays out the the differing ethoses of the novel’s various and vying factions, their specific cultural and social signifiers helping to support an intricate web of plots and counterplots.
Judah “Lion” Zorn is an em-tracker. His hyper-developed sense of empathy and pattern recognition allow him to expertly trace cultural and linguistic shifts, a skill useful to the corporations that employ him to figure out how to launch new products and identify the next exploitable trend. When his latest gig for a pharmaceutical company leads him to a bizarre murder scene, Lion suddenly finds himself at the center of a weird culture war involving an empathy drug, aggressive animal rights groups, mysterious disappearances, and a rather gruesome incident of taxidermy. Lion’s plans to finish the job and get out and stymied by his own empathic gifts, not to mention interference by the shadowy parties involved, which manipulate him via specific details of his life gleaned from his immersion in a privacy-free culture—from the battered paperback copy of Dune he carries everywhere (a major player in the conspiracy favors codenames drawn from Frank Herbert), to his preferred strain of marijuana (“Ghost Trainwreck #69”). In the end, Lion will face a choice: between slow social evolution and explosive cultural revolt.
If there’s one thing Last Tango in Cyberspace groks, it’s that significant technological shifts beget massive cultural ones. While Kotler does dream up an impressive array of future-tech, the book prefers to focus on the fallout that results. As Lion investigates the drug at the center of the plot, his journey also traces the interlocking “sub-cults” responsible for its spread, from a group of animal-rights terrorists who practice an extreme form of empathy, to a clan of fruit-smuggling retro gamers, to an informant who speaks in a code comprised of Apocalypse Now quotes. In a society built on heightened empathy, the blending and intersecting of culture results in numerous fusion restaurants and new musical genres, while corporations can research someone’s life and unlock the secrets of their greatest fears, the better to influence their actions. In detailing a system of interlocking (or clashing) social systems and ideologies, the novel deploys an array of pop-culture references and cultural signifiers to communicate deeper truths about the way corporations and technology shape our world, both now and five minutes into the future.
Approaching cyberpunk from a cultural and anthropological perspective rather than a technological one, Last Tango in Cyberspace crafts a compelling narrative, but truly excels in its pop-cultural worldbuilding (Lion and his informant share a kind of weird language of references centered around everything from Infinite Jest to goth music, illustrating the depth of their friendship as effectively as reams of exposition). It’s an unusual but entirely engaging book, awash in style and substance (and sometimes style as substance). It’s worth reading for its slick aesthetic alone—but it might also change the way you think about the future.