Last Tango in Cyberspace - Steven Kotler

steven kotler - last tango in cyberspace

Books Received: Last Tango in Cyberspace. St. Martin's Press: 2019

Steven Kotler's influences in Last Tango in Cyberspace are ever present, like neon kanji at night, floating above densely-packed Tokyo streets. Yes, the book is a love song composed to William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon. Kotler imitates the right writers, has a prose style that makes the read worth it by itself, and is an inventive thinker. The only major weakness here is that the book is missing dramatic tension. Because so much of the book is a direct homage to Kotler's literary forebears, while reading Last Tango, you're never quite free of the nagging thought about how would things have played out had Gibson or Pynchon penned it.

From William Gibson, we get a hard-boiled detective plot--though the hard-boiled narrative is by way of Raymond Chandler. The mystery turns on itself, closing like a Celtic knot before everything is straightened out by the end.

Quasi-Spoiler Alert in this Section

Lion Zorn is an em-tracker, which means he can gain information by reading the emotional states of others, whether animal or human. In miniature, Zorn can get on the level with anything and Figure Stuff Out.

So, Zorn is hired by a billionaire to Figure Stuff Out and given an American Express card with practically no spending limit. At one point, Zorn orders a round of grossly expensive bourbon, spending several thousand in one go. The card owner never questions the expenditures--Zorn does what Zorn does. But most of what Zorn does gets tiresome. Every now and then plot significance reappears like a hazy mirage out on the horizon, but too often, Kotler is content with literary stylization riding shotgun to Zorn rolling his next smoke--done 50-50 tobacco and The Good Stuff.

In his detective work, Zorn discovers a new drug that causes its users to experience uncharted levels of empathy, sending them well beyond the effects of MDMA. But this chemically-created empathy is not for empathy toward other humans, it's for animals. The drug is supposed to set off a wide-sweeping cultural change, causing humans to create more protections for animals. This is clearly a worthy cause. Here, Kotler brings up The Sixth Extinction, an event remembered as part of the past in Last Tango's near future in which human environmental carelessness wiped out countless species. 

Man's Best Friend

Kotler's highest achievement in Last Tango in Cyberspace is his argument for the importance of animals because of their influence on humanity--wolves/domesticated dogs especially. He argues that the symbiosis between man and wolf/dog helped select for traits that came to define mankind. Dogs became man's best friend because both man and dog went through evolutionary changes over several millennia to mutually benefit from the other's abilities. This argument supports the need to protect animals--because their influence has shaped and may shape mankind further in the future.

 cape buffalo

Kotler's finest symbolic piece is the horn of a cape buffalo that cuts Zorn open from wrist to elbow, a surgical incision. The image reinforces the idea that animals have left their mark on humanity.

No Space for Cyberspace

Some readers may find it odd or even off-putting that a book with the word cyberspace in it contains zero seconds with cyberspace in the novel. But I didn't mind. That's one of the more brilliant parts of the book, in my opinion. The idea is that in the future, the real world functions like we thought cyberspace would. Cyberspace has made its mark on reality.

Neon Origami Brick(laying)

While Last Tango in Cyberspace is in many ways a masterful work of tightly written prose and cool ideas, it isn't perfect. Here are some of its weaknesses.

From William Gibson's influence, we sometimes get an unnecessary glut of literary stylings--endless descriptions of shoes and shirts, skies and skirts. Trim the largely unnecessary descriptions and the book would shake free of 20% of its volume. When descriptions serve the story, they win the day, but too much of Last Tango in Cyberspace is lustily tangled up in description for the sake of description. Gibson too often falls into this bad habit. If there's a Pattern you don't want to Recognize, it's unending description as an invisible but persistent lead character of the novel.

Unfortunately, what we don't get from Gibson's influence here are characters with endless depth. Most of the characters in Last Tango feel like they walked out of Steve Jackson Games' GURPS Cyberpunk: Rastafarian shamans doling out drugs as liberally as religious conviction; women that do drugs, have sex, and fight, all without holding any convictions.

Hold on, Takin' an Infodump Over Here!

My greatest criticism with Last Tango is about its over-reliance on what I call "The Learned Lecture." From the two aforementioned literary greats (Gibson & Pynchon) and the postmodern narrative tradition we get "The Learned Lecture." I often love a good Learned Lecture and confess that my own fiction can get rather top heavy with them at times, but Learned Lectures have a great pitfall, which is that they make one wonder if they are still reading fiction or if the book jumped the tracks and is now pushing full steam ahead, chugging toward non-fiction's golden shores. 

The Learned Lecture is somewhat different from an infodump, but the two often appear together and Kotler employs both. In fairness, Infodumps and Learned Lectures are staples of science fiction and postmodern fiction. From Neal Stephenson to Nancy Kress, this is common practice. Science Fiction is the literature of ideas, after all. But one of the most basic and important pieces of advice for any writer is that they should show, not tell. Infodumping and lecturing rely almost solely on telling, not showing. A Learned Lecture or Infodump works best coming on the heels of action that put the ideas in the lecture on display. So, if you intend on dumping in a Learned Lecture on the symbiosis between man and wolf, including man's domestication of wolves into dogs, then someone in the story needs to have a really obedient dog and the someone that has the obedient dog needs to be doglike himself. This way, when we get to the Learned Lecture, it reinforces ideas in the story. That is the work of fiction.


Telling a good story is a balancing act. Good stories need information and lectures but they also need action, conflict, drama, and suspense. Tango shines now and again with excellent active moments but the balance is not always there, the ideas don't always fit into the action, and the larger conflict is never gripping. The story never has Neuromancer's feeling of immediacy nor The Crying of Lot 49's oddity qua mystery.

But maybe I didn't take enough empathetic drugs while reading. And maybe it's not fair to compare Last Tango in Cyberspace to the greatest examples of postmodern fiction. 

After all, the novel is fun, memorable, and deals with important themes. Even knowing its faults, I'd consider this an important read and am excited to see where Steven Kotler goes from here.

Escape from New York by John Carpenter