Okay, here's one really weird case. A longer review of this one was unexpectedly aborted at a different magazine, so I'm gonna do a condensed write-up here, of a novel I read months ago. Pyrexia is a weird and somewhat wonderful blend of surrealism and sf, with plenty of satirical shots at the Information Age we're now entering in the "real world" and even some tasty, spaced-out recurrent erotic imagery as a bonus treat. Abelard is a typical citizen of a human city nestled along the sheer cliff walls of Mars' imposing Mariner Valley. His culture is high-tech, carried to the isolating extreme, his life dominated by a combo of computer, Internet and virtual reality so advanced (and so seductive) that nobody leaves their sealed apartments.
The only escape from mindless and pointless information management "work" is the GUM. Far beyond our concept of VR, the "Global Un-Manifested" device puts the user's consciousness into the mind of another person, in another time and place, even the other dimensions and universes. Pyrexia is often grand fun, its amiable confusion transmuting into a glorious satire of career-fixated go-getters and their high-tech toys.
There's a twist ending and the "truth" (about the GUM machine and its relation to our "modern/real" world that Abelard reasons out) pulls a lot of loose ends unexpectedly together and makes for a more satisfying conclusion than I would have predicted. I don't thing Pyrexia is quite a great book, but its ultra-weird characters and their bizarre adventures began to matter to me. I was sucked in, challenged, and often delighted. And the full-color cover art by Francois Mery, showing the GUM generated title sex goddess in all her peculiar glory, is another noteworthy treat.
In reality there is no beginning and no end, except what we choose to mark for our own convenience. Pyrexia, the book by Michel Méry, begins with Pyrexia, the sex goddess, who exists in a realm accessible to humans only through the GUM machine. Put your nickel in, pull the lever (so to speak: you type in a Provisionally Probable Pathname (PPP), which is not unlike the URL's used on the Internet, except that, since the universe is governed by Chaos, it indicates only a direction in quantum space time, with the terminus often wildly different even if you use the exact same PPP), and take your chances. The GUM machine is a marvelous literary invention, calling to mind such treasures as H.G. Wells's time machine, James Thurber's Walter Mitty, Philip K. Dick's drug Chew-Z, and New Age past life regressions. But in Abelard's world it's just another appliance, requiring no more contemplation than our television sets. He just got lucky when he found Pyrexia; he wants to experience the heavy-metalesque, ultimate male fantasy again; but he forgot to record the PPP. That is irritating, but it is the least of Abelard's problems.
There's Abelard's better half, or anima, named Kahani, from whom he's hiding his desire for reuniting with Pyrexia, among other things. This is difficult, given the fact that they live in a tiny apartment. There's his job, which seems at first to be more of a game: the Linked Lattice at Large (LLL). The LLL allows you to get your e-mail, so to speak, but the conditions and rules have evolved nightmarishly so that he's in danger of going bankrupt. There's something disturbing going on outside his window, and most of his GUM trips take him to impoverished and somewhat demented personalities of late 20th century New York City or Paris.
The brilliance of Pyrexia results from the cross multiplication of the four components tensions: the GUM, the LLL, the anima/animus conflict, and the glimpses of life on earth in our own era. I found reading Pyrexia to be, literally, a mind-altering experience. Part of the fun is that Abelard wants to rebel against the system, to show some individuality, but all he can manage is to fail to get with the corporate program. For instance, when playing on the LLL the rule is that an animus must wear a yellow silk necktie, and an anima must wear a pair of white nylon stockings. He does not want to imitate the rich, who wear other items of clothing while working the LLL; yet if he is naked, tie-less, the machine will not only not work, it will penalize him a few giga-infobits. Every attempt to stray from the rut his society has ordained for him results in penalties. Which means he must work ever harder on the LLL. Every day the LLL inundates him with data, which becomes his if he fails to deal with it before its trial period expires; of course if it becomes his he must pay for it. It is against the law to destroy the data. He can, however, "push" it to someone else, but he must provide some extra value of his own first, like a commentary. Anyone with e-mail who has watched its volume explode the last few years can imagine what that would be like. Is he working so hard that he's having a nervous breakdown? It's hard to tell, but something is subtly, and sometimes radically, changing his reality, or messing with his memory. It's an extension of the Processed World magazine philosophy: you aren't processing data using your GUM and LLL, the data is processing you.
Abelard gets to the point where he can't figure out if Kahani has a physically separate existence or is just an alternative personality that sometimes controls a single body. He could have sworn his apartment had a door to the outside, but maybe door is just a 20th century earth concept he learned from his GUM rides? The brilliance of Pyrexia is also that Méry pulls this whole joyride off. The reader is sucked in, the intellect is massaged, drawn, and quartered, and when you put the book down you understand that fiction, printed black ink on white paper, is still the greatest virtual reality of all.