Book Review: ‘The Cyber Puppets’, Angus McAllister

Review by Duncan Lunan

Angus McAllister, “The Cyber Puppets”, £8.99 paperback, 283 pp., Matador, 2018. ( See also The Cyber Puppets)

First published in Shoreline of Infinity 29:1, March 2022.

Angus McAllister, formerly Professor of Law at the University of the West of Scotland, has been writing science fiction for many years.  His comedy SF novel The Krugg Syndrome was followed by the psychological thriller The Canongate Strangler, and more recently he has turned to murders set in Glasgow with Close Quarters  (Matador, 2017)  and Murder in the Merchant City  (Polygon, 2017).  His prizewinning story ‘What Dreams May Come’ is included in my Starfield, Science Fiction by Scottish Writers, (Orkney Press, reprinted by Shoreline of Infinity in 2018), and for the 1995 Glasgow Worldcon he produced Mind-Boggling Science Fiction, a collection of his own work under different pen-names, cunningly disguised as the simultaneous first and last edition of a magazine.

Those of us who’ve known Angus for years have always been a little bemused by his fascination with soap operas, though he did mention in MBSF that he was getting a novel out of them.  I formed a thorough dislike for the genre in the sixties and after, when I couldn’t avoid the ones my family insisted on watching, but in The Cyber Puppets Angus has avoided the banality of the British soaps and targeted the absurdities of US ones like Dallas and Dynasty.

His imagined soap follows a US-based family of Scotch whisky distillers, living in a fantasy within the fiction which lets him poke fun at expat and would-be Scots.  Don’t miss the regular servings of haggis steaks, the fake Scotch whose labels “could have been printed in Disneyland”, and the fake Scottish castle in which the entire family lives, complete with roof garden and swimming pool for the obligatory open-air breakfasts, and an annual party called the Highland Fling.  Although it’s bigger than Culzean, somehow the only rooms ever seen are the family bedrooms, the dining hall, a glimpse of the kitchen, and the library in which no-one ever reads a book, like the one in the Laurence Olivier version of Pride and Prejudice.  Likewise their multi-storey office building has only one actual office and a boardroom.  When Scott Maxwell, the family lawyer, tries to walk out, he finds that there’s an identical unused suite below and then the stairs fade off into a void – by which time his doubts about the situation are becoming serious. 

There is precedent for it:  I remember a story about a soap character who became aware of the people watching him.  He could see them when he turned his back on another character in order to tell them something important, as one invariably did ‘out of courtesy’ in his world.  Angus hasn’t used that particular absurdity here, but he has fun with most of the rest – like the way a girl behaves in bed as if naked, “while remembering to grab the bedclothes and hold them above her breasts, as if she suspected the presence of a hidden observer”. There are signs of rebellion from the word go, as when Maxwell is deceived yet again by his unfaithful wife.  “It almost seemed as if he had no control over his speech and actions… trapped inside a body that was being operated by another person… I really sound as if I mean it, he thought.  I’m wasted as a lawyer.  I should have been an actor.”  He becomes aware of the cuts from scene to scene, like the instant arrival of the police after a shooting, and a character suddenly drunk when he’s only had one drink and poured another.   Other characters notice the compulsion to say their lines when using the telephone, though there’s nobody on the other end.     

Nobody disappears without trace the way they used to do in Compact  (the Radio Times once ran a letter asking when the cast of Z-Cars would be ordered to find them all).  But Maxwell becomes increasingly aware of the cuts – how he finds himself suddenly moved from one place to another, reporting knowledge gained on the way which he has no memory of acquiring.  He realises that when he looks down from his office window, there is no city below, or anything else for that matter.   The last straw is when he becomes aware of the background music, as he watches action he’s no longer part of.  His days are numbered – he’s about to be written out.

But instead, like Bowman in 2001, he finds himself in a transitional hotel-like room and being introduced to an entirely different world.  The version of The Lairds of Glendoune in which he’s been a character is not the 20th century original but a much-enhanced 22nd century version, computer-generated from the earlier recordings and distributed worldwide as escapism for the underground population, toiling to reclaim the Earth’s surface after environmental disaster – not too different from the setting of ‘What Dreams May Come’.  But the project has succeeded too well:  the populace has become hooked on the series and is increasingly being infected with the soap’s ethos of greed and dishonesty – starting with the popularity of the J.R. Ewing-type character, just as it had in our time, but becoming an insidious threat to the very fabric of society.

Something must be done, and the attempted answer is to make the characters real and give them the opportunity to change the plots.  From the outset it hits trouble – the new synthetic people are like amnesia victims, with only partial memories of the pasts they’re supposed to have had, and not all of them can break out of character to become the better rôle models which the planners were hoping for.  Even worse – the new plot-lines they devise are simply not as interesting to the viewers as the old ones were.

In his 1970s contribution to the final chapter of my Man and the Planets, the late Chris Boyce put forward his vision of the future ‘mind-machine net’, and the discussion group to whom he did so spent a lot of time discussing the implications of a society in which all bodies  (natural or artificial, organic or machine)  were accessible to all minds.  When he returned to the subject in 1981 Chris himself had seen the dangers, remarking “the spirit of the beehive is in this”.  Various measures were discussed, to counter the threat to individual identity, but we didn’t think of the one proposed by Socrates, the sentient computer which runs the world of The Cyber Puppets.  ‘He’ proposes to jazz things up still further by giving life to a wider range of historical and fictional characters – including Moriarty, who engineered his own escape from the Holodeck in Star Trek Next Generation.  It sounds like another bad idea, raising the possibility that Socrates, like HAL 9000, is no longer sane – but on that ominous note the novel ends, having raised some serious issues after an enjoyable ride. 

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