(Pat Cadigan, 1991)

‘The sockets. The schematic for the sockets.’

…The brain slid to the center of the screen as the other graphic of what Sam had thought was a neuron shrank in size and made a countermove to a spot above it. A moment later there were eight instead of one; the graphic of the brain increased in size as each of the eight things swooped to one of the highlighted areas on the cortex.

The image gave a sudden flicker and faded out, like badly spliced film. ‘One of the bad spots,” Art told her. ‘It’ll come back shortly. Ah, here we are.’

The brain graphic reappeared, now with a network of red filaments radiating from each of the eight highlighted areas, from the points where each one had inserted itself.

‘I was right. They’re implants,’ Same said, more to herself. ‘But why would a corporation like the Dive decide to move into therapeutic implants?

Art held up a finger. ‘Not implants. I told you, sockets. They’re receptor sockets that will accommodate a certain kind of input device -‘ He touched a finger to the highlighted area on the right frontal lobe. A window blossomed at the spot and zoomed out, showing a detailed line drawing of the socket. The channel Sam had noted as being too large for an axon was now filled with a pronged device.

‘No explanatory call-outs,’ Art told her. ‘I’m afraid those were permanently obliterated.’

‘But what’s it for?’ Sam asked. ‘Either they’re going to do this, or they’ve already done it, to Visual Mark -‘

‘Well, they’re going to make rock videos, to start with,’ Art said casually….

[much later in the novel….]

Basically the job’s the same. Hear the music, make the pictures.

Except it was better. It wasn’t just hearing the music, it was being in the music, and the images coming up on the screen of her mind, forming as she looked at them. As soon as she thought it, there it was, and if she thought to change it, it changed, growing from her like a living thing. She suddenly found it hard to remember that she had worked any other way. At least, while she was doing it. It felt so natural, so right, to send a dream out of the inner darkness into raw daylight, where anyone could see it. Once you’d done that, you wanted to keep on doing it, and the more you did it the easier it became.

…Change for the machines? Nah, the machines had finally changed for him, and he was just doing what he’d always done.

…They played it for her, beginning to end and from the first note; the pictures came up in her mind just the way they were supposed to. Except she wasn’t plugged into the hardware, and the images boiled like a fever, looking for the way out, pressing to be released, until she thought her head had to explode.

And then Valjean and Moray stopped, and her vision cleared. She barely registered that Valjean’s synthesizer had remained closed and silent, that Moray hadn’t touched her keyboard; they’d played it all the way through with only their minds, but she was already out, ripping down Topanga, needing her own machine. Change for the machines. Everything changed for the machines.

In America in the not-too-distant future, brain implants are normal. Though ostensibly for therapeutic purposes, they are also administered by “feel good mills” eager to equip anyone with addictive pleasures. Sockets represent the next generation of implants: entirely organic rather than synthetic, they allow output from as well as input to the brain, providing new ways to create and experience virtual realities. As a doctor on the project explains, they successfully “hardwired an out-of-body experience.”
Sockets are a world-changing technology in Pat Cadigan’s classic cyberpunk novel Synners (1991). But they are developed for and popularized through a seemingly innocuous entertainment: music video. The origins of the music video element of the novel lie in Cadigan’s short story “Rock On,” published in 1984. In that earlier story, the disturbing consequences of the mind-machine interface for music-making are a central theme. Gina, its first-person narrator, is “raped,” her brain forcibly accessed by musicians who rely on her “synthesizing” skill but treat her like a piece of hardware. As she explains of the new musical world order:
Forget the road, forget the shows, too much trouble, and it wasn’t like the tapes, not as exciting, even with the biggest FX, lasers, spaceships, explosions, no good. And the tapes weren’t as good as the stuff in the head, rock ‘n’ roll visions straight from the brain. No hours of setup and hours more doctoring in the lab. But you had to get everyone in the group dreaming the same way. You needed a synthesis, and for that you got a synthesizer, not the old kind, the musical instrument, but something – somebody – to channel your group through, to bump up their tube-fed little souls, to rock them and roll them the way they couldn’t do themselves. And anyone could be a rock ‘n’ roll hero then. Anyone!
In Synners, by contrast, the main “synner,” Visual Mark, experiences his sockets as liberating the music videos from his mind, and his mind from his body. The same technology that allows music videos to pass from his brain to others, however, also lets viruses move between humans and machines. If “Rock On” contemplated where mind-machine interfaces would take music, Synners portrays music as a Trojan horse, making us dangerously eager for and unwary of new technologies.
Text: Pat Cadigan, Synners (Bantam Spectra, 1991)
Image: Book Cover, Thunder’s Mouth Press 2001 edition
Thanks to Annette Markham for bringing Pat Cadigan to our attention