I N   R E A L   L I F E    Issue 3.01 - January 1997
Edited by James Flint

  Red Hot Knobs

Until recently, game publishers were under the illusion that all they had to do to make their products seem "with it" was either (a) liberally sprinkle some "dope" graffiti over the packaging or (b) stick a pair of sunglasses on the main character. That was before Wipeout was released in 1994. It also showed up virtually all other games for the clichés they'd become. Wipeout had a fantastic soundtrack; the other games had some Jap singing badly over horrendous slap bass solos. Wipeout was what modern video games should look like; the others still had their token well-endowed-female-in-suspenders.

In short, it was one of the most important games released on the Playstation. I loved it. I even wanted to hold a Wipeout party and I don't normally think of jerky things like that. Well, not most of the time. So I got quite hot under the collar at news of a sequel, Wipeout 2097. Fortunately it doesn't disappoint, although at a quick glance the changes don't appear too dramatic. The game has been made a bit more arcade-like with the inclusion of checkpoints, damage meters and pit stops; the controls have been made easier (many found the original game too hard); the gameplay's more fluid; the courses are new and the pick-ups have all been upgraded - and they now include a mental nuclear-bomb-type weapon which causes the track to ripple. The graphics are fantastic and the soundtrack, as you'd expect, is top notch (The Prodigy, Underworld, Fluke, Photek, et cetera). It's basically everything you'd expect: the original with knobs on. But my, what knobs!

- Daniel Pemberton

Wipeout 2097 for the Sony Playstation: £44.99.

  Turn On, Log In, Cop Out

After the media hysteria and the porn-site hit counts, it comes as no surprise to find that second-wave skin traders are using the Net to spice up their standard routines. Online chat rooms and one-handed typing are now cropping up on a depressingly regular basis in porn videos and paperbacks. Exhibit A: Confessions of a Cybertramp by VanessaQ@aol.com (wonder if Steve Case endorsed this one?).

"Female-friendly erotica" framed as an addict's rueful confession, Cybertramp recounts the "steamy online adventures" of Vanessa, a high-powered software exec who just can't stop cruising those chat rooms. On the way, she encounters silver-tongued nerds, horny cops, impotent sugar daddies and dodgy netstalkers. Four-letter specifics are kept to a minimum in favour of stuff about touching the core of womanly being, and although one would like to suspect that AOL types (clutching their naughty words list) were involved, it seems more likely to be a product of the genre. Maybe that's also perhaps why the drives on show are as much social as sexual; even as she's getting down and dirty, Vanessa has upward mobility of a different sort on her mind. Hence the novel's sexual hero, a fortysomething Tom Selleck type called Wolfie, who, despite being a high-powered businessman, still knows how to type real quick.

Even as she's overcome by orgasmic waves again and again (and again), for Vanessa online sex is just a prelude to the real thing. Gender hacking is frequently dismissed as repulsive in favour of typing straight down the line. No surprise, then, that the big climax (and real object of fantasy here) is a stable relationship with Wolfie. In the end, Cybertramp raises more chuckles than anything else, though it should please serious collectors of technokitsch, who probably won't have to succumb to the need to read it with their typing hand.

- Jim McClellan

Confessions of a Cybertramp, by VanessaQ@aol.com: £10.99. Emery Dalton Books. Available from Tower Records and other import bookshops.

  Two's Company, But Three's a Web Project

If there's one thing the Web is good for, it's practising deceit. You can masquerade, dissemble, fabricate, and no one need ever find out. Cyberspace has turned deception into an art form, and so it's not surprising that fiction writers are clamouring to get out there and weave some elaborate lies themselves. Quite a few are already doing it very well, but until now no fiction writer has received the august backing of a giant like Penguin Books. According to Penguin, IRINA is "the first ever truly interactive piece of fiction ever produced." Er ... really? Interactive fiction has been around for years, both on the Web and off, and most of it is much more sophisticated than this.

In IRINA you access the narrative by reading multi-dimensionally in time-honoured hypertext fashion, but what's really new here (at least I've never seen this before) is that as you move through the story, you trigger off a series of mailings. A few hours after you "interact" with it, the first in a series of emails popping up to direct you to a Web site where you can gather more information about Irina and her mysterious cosmonaut father. The logistics of putting all this together - the pretend/real Web sites, the numerous email addresses, the collections of "authentic" data - make the whole thing a fascinating exercise in organisation.

But it's less fascinating in terms of the writing itself. IRINA is full of clunky prose and spelling errors. Cyberspace is changing our language by the minute, but that's evolution, not bad proofreading. I found the first of many spelling mistakes in the opening lines of the first page - "disappearence" - and immediately wondered how much care was taken with this project. Later I found other typos - "biniary" - as well as receiving emailed leads to URLs that turned out to be dead.

It's wonderful to see the greats of publishing tottering one by one onto the Web, and IRINA is a laudable attempt to let go of the rail and step into cyberspace unfettered by paper. It's an interesting try and it could have been extremely successful if more care had been taken with the technical side and the writing had been more seductive. Wonder why it feels so unfinished? Maybe it ran out of budget.

- Sue Thomas

IRINA, by Stephen Baxter, Guy Gadney and Hugh Barnes: free on the Web at www.penguin.co.uk/Penguin/homepages/index.html.

  Cat Cuts

Hardly a month passes without yet another eclectic beats 'n' breaks record label being foisted upon the general public, but a recent string of great releases has made Pussyfoot stand out from the crowd. Pussyfoot, which has showcased impressive debuts from the likes of slinky electronic beat-merchants Naked Funk, has finally carved an identity of its own outside of being "that record label Howie B owns." Those in any doubt of Pussyfoot's pedigree need only check the soundclash album with fellow label Wall of Sound, worryingly titled Wall Of Pussy, or the recent collection of James Bond influenced tracks, Pussy Galore (catalogue number 007 - cute!), for a fine demonstration of their sonic skills. The Bond compilation is worth buying for the Spacer contribution alone, a collage of cascading beats, heavy orchestration and a great Eartha Kitt style vocal that shows up the horrible Tina Turner tune that fronted 007's last celluloid outing for the monstrosity it was. So in the immortal words of someone who would like his name to be withheld, go get some Pussy!

- Daniel Pemberton

Pussyfoot Records: (0171) 729 4100.

  Doin' Poppers

You've gotta love the word "bodice". It just conjures up all kinds of heaving bosoms and breathlessness. But this is a bodice of an entirely different ilk - not to mention fabric. Electric blue PVC studded with industrial-strength poppers, to be precise. It's entirely un-Jane Austenish. It's more like Les Liaisons Dangereuses meets Terry Gilliam inside Jean-Paul Gaultier's matte-black carrier bag.

Though the squared-off front has that amazing-flattening-yet-simultaneously-accentuating-your-cleavage-or-indeed-even-making-you-look-as-though-you-might-have-one effect seen in many recent BBC productions, the stunning colour and feel of the PVC make it utterly millennial. Reactions varied from "absolutely the coolest piece of apparel I have ever seen on a living human being" to "I hope you're wearing talcum powder under that thing." Average comment? "Darling, it's faaaaaaaah-bulous."

My advice to Judy - who makes the bodice and her other equally pole-axing designs to order - is that she'd better design a matching garment with the female half of the poppers cemented all over it, so the wearer can attach herself to a significant other. (And if the sig. oth. is a guy, you'd get all those marvy woman-penetrates-man overtones that are creeping into sex in the '90s; kind of like a strap-on, but with less hardware.) It'd give the phrase "joined at the hip" new depths of meaning.

- Liz Bailey

Stud bodice, in black, red, or electric blue PVC: £45.00. Wild Designs: (0181) 766 7550. Catalogue free for Wired readers; send two first-class stamps to: Wild Designs, 1 Chestnut Road, London SE27 9EZ. On the Web at www.wild.co.uk.

  The Future Ain't What It Used To Be

With Tokyo no longer the town it used to be, every cyberpunk writer worth his or her salt is scrabbling around trying to find the next Babylon Central. William Gibson has been going around saying that it's gonna to be Moscow and that he's gonna set his new novel there, but Jack Womack has gone and beaten him to it.

Womack's line is that he wanted to write about computer capitalism tearing apart the fabric of '80s New York, but had to future-warp his vision to make its pessimism coherent. But with '90s Moscow, he has at last found his true subject. Its post-communist mix of historical amnesia, universal sleaze and fantastic violence means that all Womack has to do to set the future there is show up for the tour.

Let's Put the Future Behind Us is an absurdist thriller narrated by one Max Borodin, an ex-Communist Party hack who has re-invented himself as a commercial operator with a cynical understanding of how to manipulate the strings of power. Cops are paid off with dollar bills, bureaucrats with phoney documents and racketeers with the consumer opiates of their choice. Max is always up for the main chance, and before long finds himself logged into a drug deal involving psychotic Georgian gangsters, corrupt local entrepreneurs, the investors in a leaky crematorium and a messianic fascist demagogue who wants to build a plastic dome over Russia to secure it against "Western sneak attacks". At the same time, he has to balance the demands of his irascible wife and voracious mistress while rescuing his gullible brother from the folly of building a "Sovietland" theme park.

Let's Put... is full of brilliant aperçus and well-aimed jokes and climaxes around a vision of the retrieval of radioactive religious icons from Chernobyl, an event which Womack regards as the ultimate in nostalgia kitsch. The Afterword reveals that this true-life anecdote was supplied to Womack by none other than Gibson himself. Nice to know that the godfather of cyberspace can still cut it.

- Steve Beard

Let's Put the Future Behind Us, by Jack Womack: £16.99. Atlantic Monthly Press. Available in hardback import from Forbidden Planet: (0171) 836 4179, where Womack will be signing copies in 1997.

  Anyone for Trungle?

Scene: a field about 20 miles outside Zürich. Time: 7am. Conditions: atrocious (six inches of mud after a night of unrelenting rain). Subject: the future of trance. I'd had to wait all weekend to hear it, but the one track I took away with me from Zürich's technofest last summer was Juno Reactor's "Conga Fury". New sounds are not always top of the agenda when you're soaking wet, freezing cold and generally exhausted, but when Blue Room's Simon Ghahary kicked off his sun-up slot that morning with this little baby, you knew a new day had arrived, even though the mountain valley hosting the rave contained so much cloud that there wasn't any chance of seeing the remotest glimmer of sunshine. After 48 hours of non-stop trance and techno, you can tell when someone's doing it differently, and Juno Reactor's decision to bring in African Percussionist Mabi Thobejane on its new single has given it a big up. This is trance with polyrhythms, and it sho' does make a difference.

- James Flint

Conga Fury, by Juno Reactor. Blue Room Released: (0171) 729 0247.

  Ligature Overtures

There are generally two species of program fighting for space on your hard drive. There're the couldn't-live-without-'em, RSI-inducing, labour-saving applications, and then there're the couldn't-live-without-'em, RSI-inducing, adrenaline-producing games, which you play in the time you saved by using the aforesaid labour savers. And then there's Knot, which, to put it bluntly, has no reason to exist. It simply generates images of knots. And a knot, to quote the author, "is made of several strands, and a strand is a sort of swoopy, spirally, wiggly tube-like thing." Exactly. Now, pictures of knots may sound a tad mundane, but these are knots that could only be tied by a pack of astral boy scouts pumped to their woggles with hallucinogens, led by an Akela in the guise of organic computer sculptor William Latham.

The controls are a bit complicated, and unless you're comfortable translating your pulchritudinous visions into parametric equations expressed in spherical coordinates, it's best just to muck about and see what happens. The results are more than worth the number-crunching wait, being satisfyingly solid and gloriously colourful. Yes, it's utterly pointless, but never has pointlessness been so absorbing, so fascinating, or indeed so cheap.

- Phil Gyford

Knot, by Lloyd Burchill: US$20. Available on the Web at ccn.cs.dal.ca/~aa731/knot.html.

  Hand Shandy

For those unfamiliar with Laurence Sterne's 18th-century original, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is a rambling masterwork of digressions, extrapolations and downright smutty innuendo. In 1759, when the first instalments of Shandy appeared, extended comic prose was in its infancy. A novel about writing a novel was a most postmodern event in a pre-modern world, and it was over a century before the world at large recognised Sterne's book.

If ever a cartoonist was born to tell the story of Tristram Shandy in pictures, that person is Martin Rowson, a cartoonist blessed with a mordant wit and healthy iconoclasm. His Shandy follows the success of his film-noir rendering of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", and, unlike that unfortunate text, perfectly captures the spirit of the original while adding some beautifully scathing ideas of his own - such as the Legendary Ship of Critics that crashes into a cinema where the Oliver Stone movie of Shandy is showing, and the narrative on the narrative provided by a cartoon Rowson character and his talking dog, Pete.

At one point the story unexpectedly becomes digitised into a page of ones and zeros, neatly updating the kind of typographical joke that so marked out the original. Brilliantly detailed, outstandingly funny, this marvellous book is an amazing achievement. There's only one thing for it. Read it again. From the beginning.

- Jamie Cason

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Martin Rowson: £15.95. Picador: (0171) 881 8000.


Using a computer at all these days increasingly means spending more time navigating than doing anything else. Constantly switching between email, Web browser, diary, word processor, graphics package and so on puts a lot of strain on that ol' mouse hand, and rare is the workplace that hasn't had at least a couple of employees succumb to RSI in one form or another. In the Wired office they're falling like flies, and I was one of them - until I was saved by the Wacom pen pad.

Yeh, okay, I know this sounds like a testimonial for a dandruff shampoo, but there's not much to tell you about this piece of kit except that it's really good - and it doesn't give you RSI (at least, it hasn't yet). It's for Macs, it plugs into your mouse port (but allows you to connect your mouse as well), and it is extremely pressure sensitive, making it a joy to use. You can click with your forefinger on the side of the pen, or tap the "nib" on the tablet, and if you're using a graphics app you can use the "eraser" end of the pen to rub things out. And that's pretty much it. Works for me.

- James Flint

Wacom ArtPad II: £210. Available from Computers Unlimited: (0181) 358 5857.

  Beware the Giant Asparagus

Visionary is an independent video distributor; the bulk of their catalogue consists of a wide range of more or less obscure music videos that chart territory stretching from Alien Sex Fiend to Robyn Hitchcock. But it has started to put out a selection of B-movie classics, most of which have previously been unavailable on video. Gems include Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls and Edward G. Ulmer's Detour.

In Island (1933), Charles Laughton plays Moreau, a twisted scientist and symbol of colonial oppression who fills his domain with genetically engineered plants and animals he has mutated roughly in the direction of the human. "Do you know what it means to feel like God?" he asks clean-cut hero Edward Parker, before he tries to fix him up with Lota the panther woman. Sexual and political tensions intertwine, there's a great build-up marked by lots of "the natives are restless tonight"-style comments, and eventually the doomed creatures trap the evil Doctor against one of his giant mutated asparagus before carting him off to his own "House of Pain". Fantastic.

Edward Ulmer's Detour (1946) is a different kettle of fish. A Viennese contemporary of von Stroheim, Lang, Korda and Wilder, an assistant to Murnau and a set designer for Max Reinhardt, Ulmer ended up in Hollywood, having chosen to make B movies because it allowed him increased artistic freedom. Shot in six days, Detour charts the downfall of Al Roberts (Tom Neal) as he hitchhikes from New York to LA to join his sweetheart. An accidental death leads him to fall into the clutches of Vera, the most fatale of movie femmes (Ann Savage), and the grim existential outcome echoes the unvoiced sentiments of many who returned from the war that year. It also contains one of the greatest of noir exchanges: Al: "Of course, your interest wouldn't be financial, would it? You wouldn't want a small percentage of the profits?" Vera: "Well, now that you insist, how can I refuse? A hundred percent'll do." Al: "Fine. I'm relieved. I thought for a moment you were going to take it all." Vera: "I don't want to be a hog."

- James Flint

Videos around £12.99. Visionary: (01253) 712 453, on the Web at www.state51.co.uk/state51/visionary/.

  Sleeping with the Enemy

Sleepers is the first big film of '97. It's got stars - BIG stars: De Niro, Hoffman, Pitt, Bacon. It's got drama - controversial drama: "child abuse in a boys' home". It's got kudos written all over it. And what's more, it's great value: two films for the price of one! Beat that!

Film No. 1: the summer of '68, and the sadistic ritual abuse of four Hell's Kitchen friends in the Wilkinson Home for Boys. Film No.2: the autumn of '81, and the foursome's unflinching pursuit of justice and revenge through the American legal system. Film No. 1 is by turns harrowing, touching and vile. Film No. 2 is hollow, facile and specious. No. 1 is, at times, utterly worthy. No. 2 is just plain ol' crap.

The effect is rather like a Kinder Surprise without the surprise. There may be a mixture of dark and light, but all you get in the end is an emptiness and a vague feeling of nausea. With any noble intentions firmly sunk by the film's formal reductio ad absurdum, all that's left really to enjoy is the vicarious thrill of watching two generations of screen heavyweights slug it out in a veritable orgy of screen stealing.

Although De Niro proves that he can do with a single glance what he failed to do in three hours of Heat, and Hoffman is business as usual, it is Kevin Bacon's menacing intensity that dominates the film. Long after you've forgotten the rest of it, the image of Bacon - baton in one hand, smouldering cigarette in the other - towering over a petrified youth and calmly demanding a blow-job is one you'll find impossible to shake.

- Kevin Maher

Sleepers goes on general release on 3rd January 1997, distributed by Warner Brothers.

  Gender Pretenders: A Hacker's Wet Dream

That gender is not obsolete on the Net is known by anybody who has ever been to a MUD and chosen a nickname even faintly female. First thing to happen is sidles up and whispers, "Do you wanna have sex?" (Can't you guys think of a better pick-up line?) But you don't need to have online friendships or work with computer technologies to know that what is virtual can be very real, and that the field of communication technologies is still highly male dominated. Gender politics is a major issue in cyberspace, and many books exploring it have been published. Wired Women is one of the first actually worth reading.

One of the great advantages of cyberspace is that you don't have to be essentialist about gender. If you can choose to be male or female, then you can choose to be something altogether different, too. These possibilities should permanently erode bad old-fashioned binary thinking about gender, but it is apparent from Wired Women that this utopia has hardly been imagined, let alone reached. We are still surrounded by SF wet dreams and an apparent lack of female input. Example: the fantasy toy of the '90s - the obedient virtual Barbie doll equipped with a super-clever AI algorithm that looks like a woman and acts (and has sex) like a woman supposedly should. This is what Karen Coyle bounces off in her essay: "GIRLFRIEND TM". But Coyle has a different vision of Girlfriend[trademark]. Her virtual girlfriend learns real fast and runs off with your credit card after deleting your hard disk.... Or take Paulina Barsook's tale about struggling with the Wired "boys' club", one woman's story about what it's like to work for a magazine that appeals to nerds through glossy techno fetishes and stories about the new gods - hackers.

But for all that, Wired Women is not about whingeing. It's about getting things changed. And it's up to us to change it, so you just wait and see. Raise up your modem and shout!

- Marie Ringler

Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, edited by Lynn Cherry and Elizabeth Reba Weise: £13.99. Seal Press. Available from the Airlift Book Company: (0181) 443 5333.

Two records in particular got the big up from hardworking wirelings this month. First one to raise them from their workstations was the egg's bend (Indochina). Memories of Sancho Panza sound system on the last day of Notting Hill carnival for all and sundry, and not a dry eye in the house.

But the real surprise was Big Hits & Jet Lags (Matador) from Japanese pop sensation the Pizzicato Five, introduced to the office musicstrom by none other than Fabius, Wired's technical wizard. The Pizzicato's light and trippy beats went down a storm with the oppressed workers, and we were all delighted to see revealed a reassuringly kitsch side to the tall traveller from the land of IT.

Is it the new Portishead? Is it the old Portishead in disguise? Does anyone care but Tricky, who already thinks it's shit (but he thinks everyone's shit, including himself)? Either way, Lamb is bound to be one of the big names of '97. And any group that gets Austrian technomeister Patrick Pulsinger to remix its single [God Bless, (Mercury)] gets a vote from me. So there.

After the new Portishead it's the new This Mortal Coil, Glory Box, which is purveying millenial depression for those members of the Wired generation who were too sensible to try and drown it all in drugs. Its new album begin (P&C) includes remixes by The Machine Age and that wunderkind of the airwaves, Scanner, but despite the digital credentials the bottom line here is analogue. Gentle tunes for those who need soothing after a hard day's surf.

Liz Bailey is chief sub at Wired.

Steve Beard is a senior contributing editor at i-D magazine. He is struggling to give birth to a cyberphunk novel, Voodoo Ray. Jamie Cason is a sometime comedian and writer. His influences include Oliver Reed, Henry VIII and Buddha.

James Flint is a section editor at Wired.

Rhys Grossman is a consultant at Coopers and Lybrand, specialising in new media.

Phil Gyford is alpha geek at Wired.

Like any angst-ridden prelapsarian yelp from a free-floating Hollywoodian neo-Joycean sub-cultural pump-action locus of Hirstian formaldehyde, Kevin Maher simply "is".

Jim McClellan is a contributing editor at The Face and i-D.

Daniel Pemberton did excellently in his A-levels. Well done, Daniel. Are you off to university?

Marie Ringler likes to wear tight t-shirts, eat Viennese pastry and generally work too much at www.t0.or.at.

Sue Thomas runs the trAce Writing & Technology Research Project and is the author of the cyberfiction CORRESPONDENCE and THE [+]NET[+] OF DESIRE, which uses old-fashioned paper but can also be visited in its virtual location at #87887 LambdaMOO.