Black Glass Samples
by John Shirley
Black Glass, which will be published in its first, hardcover edition, this summer, by Elder Signs Press, was conceived under a different name and as a different kind of project, in the early days of cyberpunk, by myself and William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and Spook Country and all his books in between. We had collaborated on a couple of projects before this one. I don’t remember who came up with the main idea or the general story of Black Glass. I know I wrote up an elaborate tale based on our discussion; I’m the one who fleshed it out and Bill approved it. But then the project got derailed, we both got diverted, and Bill was swept off to collect awards, count his royalties, chill with rock stars, and work on other projects. Subsequently, long subsequently, I remembered the book and inquired; Bill is a busy guy and turned the whole thing over to me.
So some years later I have written the novel, which I think of as the Lost Cyberpunk Novel; I have written it in its entirety. No one else should be held to blame.
I think of the novel as both definitively cyberpunk and as “a pulp novel of ideas”.
The Chapters are numbered in an unusual way.
Sample #1 from:
HAS TO BE CHAPTER ONE—THAT’S HOW IT IS, HODE, ASK ANYONE
The message scrolling on the ceiling read : They backon letting prispissin toletday Caning putre back out bodof mindle.
Terrence Grist reached past Lisha and hit the decrypter. Now the text message read:
They’re putting Candle’s mind back in his body. They’re letting him out of prison. Today.
Grist lay on his back, re-reading the message looping across the ceiling screen; Lisha kept on working, straddling him, keeping his dwindling maleness locked inside the intersection of her womanhood, gazing down at him with a practiced simulation of reverence. She was used to Grist reading and phoning during sex.
He read the message again and, wanting to keep his erection, he continued moving his hips, trying not to break rhythm...
You want to keep it up, don’t think about Rick Candle.
He’d penciled this bedding into a busy schedule and he didn’t want to waste it. Lisha was expensive—everything about her. Even her face, which he’d paid for: Grist was in bed with himself.
Lisha had been surgically altered to have his face—stylized female, girlish pretty, sure, but it was Grist’s face, nano-surgically reproduced. Not too much of a stretch: he’d always had “pretty boy” features, slender, almost fawnlike; not a “tranny” face but it could have been the gender-bending visage of a rock star from the last century. Lisha’s variant of his face wasn’t virtual, no; virtual was cheap bullshit. Lisha was flesh and blood, face-formed and paid for. She was a high-priced contract wife—very pricey indeed, her agent had been damned good. She’d pretended to like her new face from the moment the flex-case was removed, using the acting skills that had been part of her training at the agency. She knew she could get it switched back, or altered to another face, fairly easily.
“Narcissism got a bad rap,” he had said to her, as they took off the flex-case covering her face, a year ago. “The ego really is all there is of a man, or a woman. There is no soul; there is nothing but the ego, and the memories. The me-trix, we call it, my dear, in the semblant trade. And if you want to be my wife enough…my pampered wife...be my sweet, feminized mirror reflection…and be happy.”
Today, in his bedroom, four digicams supplied variable angles for him to soak in, multiplying his duality on the surround-screens. Vapors of mild, designer-stimulant enhanced the high-oxy house environment, disposing him to stonily muse: Here he could be in an altered state—no, a completed state, another world of self unification, a being fully completed for the first time, dovetailed, and what an expression dovetailed was, considered just now, the tail of a dove, the white bird who...
(What about Candle? If that pit-bull of an ex-cop...)
Suddenly—as Richard Candle loomed in his mind—Lisha seemed unreal.
His attachment to the moment’s pleasures melted away. He felt he was falling away from Lisha, falling right through the bed into a cold aloneness...
A side effect of the vapors, he told himself. You’re not alone. You’re surrounded by those who work for you.
What was left of his erection…went.
“What’s uh matter?” Lisha said muzzily, smothering a yawn.
“I just... I remembered something, an emergency. Business...emergency. Off...please.”
Lisha dutifully rolled off, casually and professionally, like a friendly restaurant worker clearing a table.
Grist sat up, and reached for the cut-class flask next to the bed and decanted brandy into a crystal balloon, drank off half of it: a wave of peripheral numbness insulated some of the stimulant-anxiety away. He went into the next room, closed the door, stood over the smart table, activated it, whipped his fingers over the selector window for Targer; left the most basic message possible via web cam. “Targer? See who you can pay off. Keep Candle inside. Do what you have to. Or arrange an accident with his…machinery. I don’t care who his friends use to be—not now.”
Get your mind off Candle...
But Candle had heard a rumor about his taking advantage of the skim-scam that Maeterling had cooked up. He hadn’t been able to follow up on it though. He’d found out after he’d taken the rap for his brother. No more cop empowerment. No access to those accounts. But he had gotten the word—they’d found out that much from going over Maeterling’s emails. Maeterling, former Grist employee. The little weasel had tried to make a deal with Candle…too late. “I’m pretty sure Mr Grist waited before informing the cops of my skim—used it himself…if you can get proof we can blackmail him…”
Grist had gotten rid of Maeterling. And Candle had to take the UnMinding to cover his brother. No time to do anything else.... Should have taken care of him in prison but Candle had friends in law enforcement who put out the word: Any accident befalls Candle in prison, they’d investigate.
And now Candle was out.
Feeling cold, though the rooms were perfectly temperature controlled, Grist returned to Lisha.
He sat on the bed, tapped the smart table next to the bed, replayed his v-mail as Lisha lay back on the pillows, her whole body a shrug, and rolled to face her own console, tuned it to iVogue.
He thought: She’s losing her ability to pretend she cares when I stop making love to her. There was a tell-tale smell in the room, lingering on his genitals—a chemical smell he was tempted to complain about. It was her pre-applied vaginal lubricant. She’d put it in right before their session, obviously. It was perfumed but you could smell the lubricant chemicals underneath. Which meant that she couldn’t get excited enough to lubricate naturally. With him, anyway. He toyed with the idea of hiring someone to excite her, some body builder perhaps. But it was insulting, his having to do that. No: She was going to make an effort. He’d talk to her later. He reached for the towel dispenser, wiped the lubricant off with one hand, with his other Grist checked his cam messages.
There was v-mail from Mitwell—a bald, cherubic-faced exec wearing a formal blue-silk choker, his unaltered, plebian web-cammed face a grotesque anomaly in the context of the erotic world Grist had fallen out of.
Really, Grist felt, this whole business of resisting facial improvements, with nanosurgery so handy, was an obnoxious fad. “Naturalism”. Having to look at faces so natively unattractive was like having to gaze on a man’s scrotum. But Mitwell was “a natural”. Hypocritically, though, he often used a semblant, they all did.
Sample #2 from:
REPRESENT, HODE, YA CHAPTER FIVE—GOTTA MAKE THE MOMENT COME ALIVE
Spanx banged up the rickety stairs into the lowest level of Rooftown.
Spanx was shaped “like a stick insect,” or so his sister Willow had said, last time she’d seen him; his jeans so tight on his skinny legs they looked spray-painted on, his boots so covered with duct tape he couldn’t tell anymore—and couldn’t remember—if they were leather or rubber; his Danny Candle T-shirt so long unwashed and unchanged it had its own pores, he figured, its own cellular system; his frizzed out electric-shock bleached white hair like an exotic fungus in the process of eating his head. High arching eyebrows; weak chin; striking nose; hollow cheeks, almost lipless. Big earrings. Spanx. Clambering up, talking to himself.
“Climbing fucking trash mountain,” he was saying. “Fucking Trash Mountain, hode.”
The stairs were made out of old plastic milk crates, wired together around scavenged vertical steel support pipes that ran through the hollowed-out building, a circa-1970s building whose interior floors had all collapsed into a pile of rubble below. Above it reared Rooftown: scavenged, wired together. Spanx was still under most of Rooftown; still in its foundations: a sprawling group of old steel-girder buildings in downtown L.A—former apartment buildings, failed hotels, a ten-story parking garage, a few office buildings. The buildings had been damaged by the 7.8 earthquake of 2023, externally too damaged to retrofit. But their steel frames were still sound enough to support the community that had grown up on top. And every time the real estate industry got interested in the neighborhood again, the Rooftown community let it be known that once evicted they would promptly move en masse to the best parts of town. “Try arresting us all.” A bluff? Maybe. But for now—stalemate.
Rooftown knew it wouldn’t last; knew the community and the structure wouldn’t last. Everyone could see its fragility, and Spanx felt its cranky, swaying, creaking transiency through the soles of his boots. He’d heard rumors the Matriarch was going to lock it down, not let anyone from outside in at all. But maybe that wasn’t happening yet. He didn’t want to ask the Matriarch’s permission to get in. She scared him.
Spanx was on a mission to find Danny Candle. There was a gig to be played. There was potential money. Feeling “on a mission” with every step, Spanx followed the zigzag stairs up through a hole broken in the cement roof. He emerged into the open air, walked across a ramp made of an old steel door to a corner of the building platform where an antique, jerry-rigged elevator, cadged from the remnants of a decerepit old hotel, wobbled its way down to him through a metal mesh shaft. The shaft was tentatively attached by U-shaped aluminum bands to the concrete wall of the higher, adjacent building. The vibration of the descending elevator transmitted to the mesh shaft causing the bolts in the braces to grind about loosely in their drill holes, threatening to pop out.
“Might be the time has finally come for the collapse,” Spanx muttered to himself. His ho-buddies had been giving him crap about talking to himself for awhile now, since he’d started doing the rotorstims. But he couldn’t stop.
He rode up in the squealing, open elevator, the wind off the buildings coming through the bars to parch his mouth; he rode up and up, foot by slow creaking foot, licking his lips, laughing at his own fear; muttering. “Listen to your heart pound, hode! It’s banging inside this metal tube you in, dumb shitter-shatter fuck. Whole thing going to crash down any second. Your heart beating so much it sets up vibration, like that butterfly theory storm-thing…” He had to work up some saliva to keep talking, his mouth was so dry. His mouth stayed open, operating a lot. “…and it send that vibration outta your chest and the heartbeat gets, like, all into this elevator and goes into this tube thing it’s in and goes into those bolts—” He turned his head to look in fascination at the bolts grinding sexily into the supporting building, bits of grit falling from the holes, a little more with each passage of the elevator. “—and those bolts get loose and—WHOA DAMN!—the whole thing falls and it knocks into those supports—” He turned to point, for no one but himself, at the underpinnings of the cross structure, like a tree-house that spanned two trees, connecting the building that held the elevator up and the unwieldy, visibly swaying superstructure of Rooftown rising from an old office building across the street. “—knock right into those puppies and knock ‘em down and the whole thing comes down with it, ba-boom-ba-boom, house of cards, down she goes, couple three, maybe four thousand people up there…” Was there that many? No one knew. Just seemed like it was always swarming with people. “…and they go crashing down, all, like, ‘YAHHHHHHHH! MOMMEEEEE!’ and…any second now…any fucking second…I can feel it GO-IIIIIIINNNNG!” He laughed, delighted at the picture of it: he saw it quite clearly in his mind’s eye. “All, like, a movie. Watch it go down! ‘YAHHHH!’”
But the antique elevator had resisted the vibrations of his thudding heart, Spanx saw, it hadn’t collapsed, instead it came wheezing to a stop at the upper end of its metal-mesh tube, and he struggled, as usual, to get the rusty old gate open, the gate that always reminded him of a portable playpen, accordion made out of Xs. Finally it slid aside, the Xs contracting, pinching skin off his thumb.
Sucking at his bleeding thumb, Spanx said, “Shitter-shatter!” and stepped through onto the walkway, which was made of slats of wood attached by wire to a couple of metal ladders laid down flat between the elevator and the undercarriage of Rooftown. The “undercarriage”, as residents called it, was actually a metal tower that had fallen from the top of one of the buildings during the earthquake, to make an accidental bridge across two others. Rooftown squatters occupying the other buildings had started building across the tower, with beams and other materials from collapsed structures. Layer on layer had been added…And now Spanx jogged along a catwalk, that swung under his tread; he hurried along the outside of the undercarriage, up to a series of ladders and steps. “Not handicapped accessible, that’s for fuck’s sure,” he said, and some of the scarecrow kids climbing around in the timbers overhead laughed and agreed and threw wood chips at him. “Hey hey hey you you you kids-ids are gonna, all, like, fall and shit!” Spanx called, more enjoying the concept than warning them. Sometimes they did fall, some of them. A few people fell every week from Rooftown. Sometimes more than a few. Eventually their bodies were cleared away by robotic street sweepers—the bodies the Rooftowners didn’t retrieve. The Rooftowners liked a good funeral. There were mummified bodies sealed into the walls of derelict buildings on this side of the street. Spanx, articulating his free-association, glanced down past the catwalk at the street. “How many stories down, those little cars, those little people, that little truck? Twenty?” A seagull flew by beneath him. “Hey bird the sky’s up here ya dumb featherhead!” he called.
Chattering to himself, Spanx reached the steep stairs he wanted, this one made of old railroad ties, and climbed it, holding onto the frayed yellow-plastic ropes that served as banisters. It was colder up here, and a wet wind was blowing. A big dented vertical pipe, four feet in diameter, gurgled next to the stairway, leaking at the joints and rust-holes. He could smell the sewage in it, running down to the drains in the center support building.
Spanx reached the top, found himself in Rooftown itself, squinting against a drift of smoke. Smell of burning garbage, gasoline and trash in metal drums—the old gasoline storage tanks were still being sucked out for basic fuel. This level was a maze of interconnected shanties, made of tin and plasterboard; on his left it was fifty square yards of shanties, mostly of allwall, on his right it rose in tiers, becoming a haphazard tower of irregular, improvised boxes, swaying in the wind.
Sample #3 from:
IT’S NOT VERY SLICK, NOT MUCH OF A TRICK—HELL, HODE, IT’S JUST CHAPTER SIX
…Rack Nidd wasn’t happy to see Danny Candle. Danny could tell by the way the robot scorpion on Rack’s left shoulder was rearing up and chittering warningly. The little six-inch robot was attuned to the hatchet-faced VR dealer’s mood. Rack just stood there in the doorway of his loft, twining a long piece of his lank, greasy gray hair with his finger. He didn’t have much hair to twine; he had a disease that made his hair prematurely gray and patchy; what there was grew out all droopy long from the patches. His grimace was patchy too: he was missing every third tooth. His eyes were in blue-tint goggles, always. Danny’d never seen Rack’s eyes, didn’t know what they looked like. The goggles might be artificial eyes, for all Danny knew; Rack could be blind without them. Rack Nidd wasn’t his real name, of course. He’d once owned a nu-punk aggregate site, before going into illegal VR: Arachnid Recordings. He stood there, now, pot-bellied, all but naked, wearing only a pair of vintage boxer shorts with some cartoon on them from an earlier era. A yellow cartoon kid with a pincushion head was saying, “Ay Carumba!” on one of the boxer’s panels. Rack’s Japanese thongs completed the picture; the rank smell completed the experience.
Probably, Danny figured, Rack was glowering at him because he owed Rack some flow and Rack didn’t think he could pay. But Rack rarely spoke unless you spoke first. So he just stood there and waited.
“I got some card,” Danny explained. “The card’s flowin’. I sold some rock collector’s stuff. I can pay you off and pay for a little V-ride. Anybody here to link with?”
“Why the fuck you standing out here yapping about it where everyone can hear?” Rack asked. He stepped aside and Danny walked into the loft.
Danny barely took in this half of the loft—it was all tables of electronics and wires and dirty clothes and dirty dishes reeking with moldy food and empty aquarium-type glass cases along the wall, some of them with rocks and chunks of wood in them. Danny’s gaze was drawn to the dirty pink curtain that divided the loft in half. There was a slit in the curtain, and the sight of the slit in the curtain filled him with a kind of abstract lust.
He felt something else too, of course: a wrenching in his gut, felt down to the bottom of his intestines, so that, like always, he had a colonic clutching, like he was about to get the runs. He’d realized, at some point, this was his body contracting in revulsion for what was coming. Some part of him ached for the VR high; some other parts of him were frightened of it because of what it did to him, how it drained him, how it aged him, how it sucked the marrow out of the bones of his whole life. One bone at a time.
And part of him wanted to find his brother and beg him for help. Wanted to say, Rick, get me away from here, I’m not strong enough…get me away from this thing…I tried while you were in jail, I did pretty good for a couple of years there but…ordinary life seems so gray and like two dimensional and things weren’t going good for the band and my life was shit and…
But the slit in the curtain was drawing him closer, sucking him closer…and he crossed a kind of inner bridge, and once on the other side, nothing but being arrested or death could stop him from hooking in to VR.
Rack caught up with him and blocked his way; the black-metal robot scorpion on Rack’s bony shoulder—almost indistinguishable from a real scorpion—danced and scuttled and arched its stingered tail warningly.
“You stop there!” the robot hissed in a reedy little voice.
Danny stopped. He’d seen the scorpion—its name was Jiminy—leap from Rack’s shoulder to an unruly customer, had seen it sting the hode’s neck, injecting authentic, imported black-scorpion toxin. That’d been the first time Danny had ever seen anyone die in person, a hard death to watch.
Danny dug in his coat, found the card, passed it to Rack. “Use it all, keep the extra. Little tip.” There wouldn’t be much left over.
Danny waited while Rack ran the card through transfer; waiting, his eyes wandered to the empty glass cases, where Rack Nidd had once kept arachnids of all kinds. Including a funnel spider, one of the deadliest. But Rack had been arrested, picking up illegal hardware in Koreatown, gotten a couple months in lock up, and no one fed the arachnids, and they died, and he’d never replaced them—except for the robot scorpion. It couldn’t die of hunger. If its charge ran down, it went quiet until he recharged it.
The glass cases always fascinated Danny, while he was waiting here. He would stare at them, though they were empty except for bric-a-brac the little eight-legged creatures used to hide under. There was something about them—he kept seeing himself, a tiny little Danny, pacing around in them. Like something Zilia would put in one of her video paintings. Zilia. He owed her money. Maybe Rick would be talking to her. Maybe her and his brother…
“Yeah okay,” Rack Nidd said, turning to him from one of his computers. “I got a new reality for you. Go ahead and…”
Danny as already walking away; he had started for the slit in the curtain before Rack’s first syllable was finished.
“Asshole!” Jiminy hissed, thinking itself safe on Rack’s shoulder. “V-rat!”
Danny had an impulse to turn around and smack the robot scorpion off Rack’s shoulder and grab that piece of steel on the bench and smash it to pieces. But he just kept walking.
“Cloe’s in there,” Rack said absently, to Danny’s back, turning away. “So that’s a little longer time…”
Since Cloe was there Rack didn’t have to generate a partner for Danny, giving Danny more VR time.
He went through the slit, and saw Cloe, fully dressed—there was no need to undress, with this system—lying on her side, her back to him, on the webbing, hugging herself, whimpering softly, waiting. She could have hooked in alone, if she’d had the flow, but she probably didn’t have enough for that, so Rack let her wait for a partner.
Danny knew the bucktoothed Cloe from the shows; from the clubs. Before she’d gone full-on bald-faced flat-out whore—and the girl she’d been before she was a V-rat was all but forgotten. If Danny thought of her now, he pictured her yellow buck teeth, her dirty brown hair, her long clutching dirty fingers, the scared darting of her big dark eyes.
Don’t think about her. Hook in. Just hook in.
He went to the other webbing, which looked something like a hammock, but made of translucent fibers, almost fine as spiderweb, hanging between the two poles of the VR transmitter. He took off his coat, tossed it under the webbing. He slung himself onto the hammock of VR threads, got comfortable, closed his eyes and spoke to the machine: “Hook in.”
The machine didn’t respond.
He called out to Rack through the curtain. “Hey! Is it snakin’ or not? I gotta put ‘em on manually?”
“Naw!” Rack called back. “Just reach back and push the re-set!”
His hands snaking like the snakers, knowing the way, he reached back and pushed re-set—he should have remembered about that, but last time it was voice-activated—and almost immediately he felt the snakers slithering onto his head, from the machine, crawling wires suctioning their electrodes to his temples, and almost immediately the transmission started. Direct stimulation of the requisite cerebral centers via attenuated resonator. He knew the damage it did but he was a million miles from thinking about that as the wave of pleasure washed over him and the pictures started, and then the physical sensations that went with them, a moment later.
He was in orbit around the Earth. He was naked, and he could breathe, quite impossibly, here in outer space, and that felt perfectly natural. He was drifting almost weightless in orbit—he could feel the weight of his body though, as one level of the pleasure. It felt good just to have a body, out there. To float along in weightless orbit, perfectly at ease, listening to neo-worldbeat, the music swelling but not overwhelming. But there was an ache in Danny’s heart, too, a piquant ache, that called out to Cloe, who was floating toward him: a nude woman silhouetted against the backdrop of a space station. The space station wasn’t a high-rez image, some part of Danny’s mind noted, the connoisseur inwardly frowning, but he ignored it and focused on Cloe, on her perfected face and body—a new Cloe without grime or scars or stretch marks or blemishes of any kind, without yellow buck teeth; with a supermodel’s sharply defined, elegantly designed face, perfect breasts, perfect legs, lush golden-red hair. She turned in space with the grace of a ballet dancer and swam toward him.
He circled around, keeping his distance, for a moment, to appreciate the image of her, now clear of the space station, her hair and breasts moving in complementary slow motion against the backdrop of the shining blue-white curve of the Earth. She and Danny were in an outer orbit; the Earth was not terribly big, from here, and she was silhouetted now against both the North and South Atlantic Ocean, her silhouette a bit southerly, turned in profile so that she faced the Americas, her rump tucked into the Gulf of Guinea, near Ghana, her back arching past Liberia, her breasts pointing toward Venezuela…
And the resonator-beam induced pulses of pleasure in his brain that accompanied a rhythm in the imagery, the speed of her turning in space, her head turning toward him…her lips parting…
Then she opened her arms and he kicked toward her, they drifted together, they spun in one another’s arms…
In the paint-flaky old loft with the sagging floors and the empty glass cases, the two V-rats writhed in the hammocks of webbing. Their bodies didn’t replicate everything done in the shared illusion of VR; just little suggestive twitches. That twitch of Danny’s hips was…
…his penetration of her, in VR, as they coupled in orbit, twined, passing now over South America, now over the Pacific ocean, feeling sunlight reflected off the ocean on their naked skin as he plunged himself into her, and she bucked her hips up to welcome him.
The sex was almost irrelevant; it was as much the resonator transmission that the addict wanted, as anything, and he’d have taken that alone, in the dark with his eyes closed, if that’s all he could get. But this made it all more real and fulfilling and it made it possible to forget with every last corner of his mind, all the shadows driven away by the sunlight reflected from the brightly snowy tips of the Himalayas…
Danny happy to be alive, seeing only what was good, feeling only good feelings…
Until tomorrow, the song goes. But that’s just some other time. I’m waiting for my man…
About the Author
John Shirley's forthcoming novels are BLEAK HISTORY for Simon and Schuster and BLACK GLASS for Elder Signs.
He is also the author of the Del Rey/Ballantine Demons and Crawlers. His script of the movie Edgar Allan Poe's Ligeia has just been filmed, starring Michael Madsen. John Shirley won the Bram Stoker award for best story collection for his book Black Butterflies. Penguin's Jeremy Tarcher imprint has published his first nonfiction book, GURDJIEFF: An Introduction to his Life and Ideas.
John Shirley is also the author of numerous other novels and books of stories, including Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, Eclipse Corona, A Splendid Chaos (all now from Babbage Press), Wetbones, City Come A-Walkin' , and Silicon Embrace. He was one of the original cyberpunk writers with William Gibson, Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling. He was co-screenwriter of The Crow, has written scripts for television series and cable movies. See his fan-created website for more info.
And PS, he is a recording artist and a lyricist for his own bands and for the Blue Oyster Cult.
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