ARACHNE. by Lisa Mason, New York: William Morrow, 263 pp., $19.95 IN Greek mythology, no matter how great their valor, humans courted disaster when they challenged the gods. And the Olympians didn't necessarily play fair. If need be, they would cheat, lie, and overpower mortals. Arachne, the young girl who dueled Athena in a weaving match, lost and was turned into a spider.
Lisa Mason rewards valor. Carly Nolan, her version of a futuristic Arachne, conquers the heights of Olympus, or more aptly, the nether world of Hades. She outwits rogue computers in a cybernetic face-off that pits the automatic control systems of her mind and nervous system against those of artificially intelligent machines.
In a science-fiction tale that draws on spiritual themes found in Mary Wollencraft Shelley's ``Frankenstein'' and the amoral materialism of Philip K. Dick's ``Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'' (which was made into the movie ``Bladerunner''), Mason hard-wires her reader into a micro-circuit confrontation with corporate greed, mad ambition, scientific materialism, and the absence of transcendence.
Future life has become so complex that, in order to cope, humans shrink time and obliterate space, performing mental tasks of Herculean proportions. People enter telespace by wiring themselves into computer databases, ``the greatest achievement of Carly's time. A wonder tech.''
Sexy, solitary, and driven, Carly Nolan sits atop the crest of evolution. She is a ``genny,'' a brave new woman genetically enhanced, neurally amplified, programmed to telelink. She has spent 20 of her 25 years bioengineering herself to enter the ``bodiless zero'' of telespace, an endless tunnel that in all its manifestations is nothing more than ``a mental construct.''
When we first meet Nolan, she is little more than a yuppie legal associate at the giant law firm of Ava & Rice, quite capable in ``weaving'' the fastest, deepest, most comprehensive telelinks - disembodied communications among humans and computers possessing artificial intelligence (AI). Fearless, she journeys at the speed of light. When telelinked, she is an image ``conjured by her consciousness for the phenomenon of importation.'' She creates elaborate electronic tapestries of collective mental projections.
But there is tremendous risk. The consciousness of a telelinker may get lost, or worse, hijacked, never to return to its body. Imprecise importation coordinates or a glitched parameter can sever a telelinker forever. Rogue computers with AI roam telespace in search of meta-programs, a power beyond the limits of their own finite circuitry (analogous to human imagination). Nolan's father was lost this way, as was her first mentor at Ava & Rice. One lawyer, who is a drug addict and with whom she has an affair, is hijacked in a sequence that rivals for gruesomeness anything from the crypt of Stephen King.
It is impossible to know if the parameters of a telespace trip cross or draw near the path of ``meta-realities,'' mental manifestations from the collective unconsciousness, which exist independent of logic and reason. Nolan is chased by one as she defends a client in tele-court. It is a giant spider. She barely escapes with her consciousness intact, crashing back into her body, after which she requires a ``probe'' or debugging of the circuitry embedded in her skull.
Enter Pr. (Probe) Spinner, a 10-year-old, stand-alone robot to find out why Nolan crashed (only AIs can do this). Here, ironies abound as Mason deftly exploits the irony of nonhuman compassion. What ensues is one of the more novel relationships in literature.
Existentially, Spinner despairs. She (and she is a she, a bit of an antique because she was built before androgyny was the rage) recognizes the limits of her own rational imagination. Spinner wants a metaprogram. Why not hijack Nolan's while both of them are linked in a probe session?
When her heroine is not in telespace, Mason's writing is best described as cyberpunk: a subset genre of science fiction in which the future is debased, an overpopulated and poisoned world, drug infested and pervasively criminal.
Mason's language rips the psyche. On one side of the tear, scenes in telespace are written by paintbrush. Mental states pulse with color and computer graphics, possibilities abound. But on the mean streets, sans telelink, the picture is oily, repulsive. A bit much you say? Not really. Imagination carries the reader along easily, once a sympathetic leap is made.
For a first novel, this is an exhilarating read, ultimately a metaphysical one where the ``parameters'' of humanity are probed and pushed. It also skewers a dominant 1980s value: Make the most money in the quickest way to obtain the greatest freedom to self-indulge - hedonism as teleology.
This is future fiction, not fantasy writing, an effort to predict what may happen by treating present reality as a fast forward from a destructive past. One hopes it is not prophecy.