When I first started reading Looking Glass, I was immediately reminded of cyberpunk classics by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. Similar settings: our near future gone totally tech crazy, new lingo, new lifestyles, corporations run amuck and the United States split up into multiple smaller, meaner countries. But Strickland manages something other cyberpunk authors haven’t, in my experience.
We are introduced to Dr. Catherine Farro, screen name Shroud, a woman who thinks she’s past her prime, stuck in the corporate world playing guard dog for OmniMart’s internal communications network. Relatively easy work for someone with her elite computer skills, but it’s the best she can get. The corporate grind is slowly wearing her down day by day, sapping her vitality and life, giving her excuses not to stretch herself any more, but she’s trapped in the life. That is, until some unknown but very powerful hacker cracks their network and kills her team of guard dog colleagues, including the woman she loves.
Thus begins the rebirth of Shroud, as she hunts down the people responsible for her friends’ deaths and her own exile from the company she has served well for eight years. As each lead is followed, and Shroud takes more and more dangerous risks to track down the killer, we are shown a world of technology, software, and hacker culture that most of us will never understand. She must fight against her own inner bitterness and physical limitations as well as the outside forces trying to stop her investigation.
The thing that Strickland does so well that other authors in the genre have failed at, is heart. Shroud is a complex woman of middle years, with many quirks and foibles that come off as natural and endear the character to the reader. Her relationships are as fraught with uncertainty and misunderstandings as those of the people reading along, and it’s very easy to root for her and understand her need for vengeance.
This is a woman that many of us could easily meet and know in real life, with her own imperfections and personality flaws. She’s more of an anti-hero than a super-hero. Another plus: the main love interest of Shroud throughout the book is Latino, although the book does suffer from an overabundance of nerdy white guys.
The two things that caught my attention quickly, beyond the likability of the character, were her physical ability, and her bisexuality. Shroud does all her work from the confines of a wheelchair, were she’s been bound since birth. She’s also very casual about her sexual preferences, although not negatively. She strikes me as very evenly bisexual, with equal desire for men and women. The scenes in the book with women are tasteful and well done, as are those with men. Strickland also doesn’t shy away from her paralysis, either, incorporating it into Shroud’s physical awareness freely and naturally. The problems with access that Shroud runs into in her world will translate very easily to those readers who deal with the same difficulties in their everyday lives.
Another aspect I liked very much was the easy-to-read story. Oftentimes when dealing with cyberpunk books, the author relies heavily on metaphors and the surrealism of working in a digital world, making the story hard to follow and the storyline difficult to grasp. Strickland incorporates all the elements of cyberpunk without losing his audience in a tangle of electrical descriptions and overdone jargon.
The story isn’t perfect, there are some of Shroud’s quirks that quickly got on my nerves, such as her endless literary quotes, although both Strickland and Shroud have an English background so I can see where that comes from. There is also a moment towards the very end of the story that struck me as very much a deus ex machina, no pun intended, and I feel like that scene was rushed just to get to the end of the book. I also think it detracted from the character of Shroud, as one of her big weaknesses was “magically fixed”. These minor hangups definitely didn’t kill the story for me, though, and I think as Strickland grows as a writer we’ll continue to see more and better work such as Looking Glass.
I’d highly recommend this book to any cyberpunk fans, and to any speculative fiction fans in general. The easy flow of the story makes for a great introduction to the cyberpunk genre for those who might otherwise be put off, and is a quick and fun read for those already indoctrinated. Pick up a copy from Flying Pen Press or your local independent bookstore. You’ll come away wondering which of your memories are real and which are merely false data.
You can also check out James R. Strickland’s blog.